John the Baptist Beheaded
1. At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report concerning Jesus;
2. And said unto his boys, “This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead, and therefore [these] powers work in him.”
3. For Herod, taking hold of John, bound him and put [him] in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife.
4. For John said to him, “It is not permitted for thee to have her.”
5. And [although] he willed to kill him, he feared the crowd, because they accounted him as a prophet.
6. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced in the midst, and pleased Herod.
7. Whereupon he professed with an oath to give her whatever she should ask.
8. And she, being pressed by her mother, declared, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
9. And the king was sorry, but for the oaths’ sake, and for [those] sitting with [him], he ordered [it] to be given.
10. And sending, he beheaded John in the prison.
11. And his head was brought on a platter, and given to the damsel, and she brought [it] to her mother.
12. And His disciples coming, took the body, and buried it, and came and reported [it] to Jesus.
The religious leaders are not the only ones who refuse to accept Jesus’ divinity. So does the Roman governor, Herod the tetrarch — also known as Herod Antipas. 1
Although he has heard the reports about Jesus, he does not believe that Jesus’ “mighty works” have any Divine origin. Instead, he has a theory of his own: “This is John the Baptist,” he says.” He is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him” (14:2).
In the verses that follow, we discover why Herod Antipas believes that John the Baptist has “risen from the dead.” As it turns out, Herod Antipas is the son of “Herod the Great,” the Roman king who ordered the massacre of all the male children of Bethlehem, two years of age and younger (2:16). Historians inform us that Herod Antipas (Herod’s son) became so enamored with his brother’s wife, that he divorced his wife and married his sister-in-law. When John the Baptist confronted Herod about his adulterous affair with his brother’s wife, Herod did not take it well. John the Baptist, who did not mince words, let Herod know that his behavior was against the commandments. “It is not lawful for you to have her, said John the Baptist” (14:4).
The story of Herod Antipas, and his response to John’s criticism, represents those aspects of our lower nature that deeply resent any form of criticism — especially criticism that reveals our moral defects. Therefore, in response, Herod ordered that John the Baptist be taken into custody and sent to prison (see 4:12).
Years later, while continuing the illicit marriage to his sister-in-law, Herod has a new infatuation — his stepdaughter. As it is written, “When Herod’s birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod” (14:6). Numerous historians and artists describe Herodias’ daughter as a femme fatale, an enchantress who aroused Herod’s darker lusts.
While this may not be the nature of Herod’s stepdaughter, we do know that Herod is so taken with the young lady’s dancing, that he makes an oath, promising to give her anything she wants. The young lady accepts Herod’s offer, and, at her mother’s prompting, she says, “Give me John the Baptist’s head, here on a platter” (14:8). Herod grants her request, and promptly commands the beheading of John in his prison cell. As evidence that Herod’s command has been carried out, John’s head is brought to them on a platter, and given to the young girl who, in turn gives the head to her mother (see 14:10-12).
All of this, then, helps explain Herod’s response when he hears about Jesus’ miracles. “This is John the Baptist” he says, “risen from the dead.” Could it be that Herod, haunted by his terrible sins, believes that John the Baptist has come back from the dead to remind him of his wrongdoings? It could be, especially when this episode is seen in the light of the internal sense. As we have pointed out, John the Baptist represents the clear teachings of the letter of the Word. Similarly, there are times when we, too, might reject the clear and most direct teachings of the Word (John the Baptist). And yet, if we have any conscience at all, those clear teachings keep rising again in our minds with unavoidable truths such as, “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not lie,” and “You shall not commit adultery.”
Like the literal truths of the Word, which he represents, John had said to Herod in no uncertain terms, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” No amount of denial, whether it be imprisonment or beheading, can prevent John from rising again and again within us. The truths of the letter of the Word, because of their Divine origin, can never die.
The parables of regeneration, which immediately preceded this episode, dealt with the process of spiritual development. In the details of the story concerning the beheading of John the Baptist, however, we are given a representative picture of the successive stages by which a person de-generates, that is, casts oneself more and more deeply into the darkness of ignorance and the flames of self-indulgence. This process begins in the lusts of our lower nature. This is the part of us that longs for something which it should not have — in this case it is adultery. It not only rejects the teachings of the Word (putting John in prison), it even commands that those teachings be put to death (the beheading of John).
The only thing that temporarily holds us back is the fear of the multitudes. Therefore, we read, “Although Herod wanted to put John the Baptist to death, he feared the multitudes, because they counted him a prophet” (14:5). In this context, the multitudes represent aspects of goodness and truth that are implanted in every human heart — the part of us that senses the holiness of divine truth. This is the part of us that still respects the literal sense of the Word, especially the Ten Commandments. This is what is meant by the statement, “They counted him [John the Baptist] as a prophet.”
But the voice of the multitudes who consider John a prophet is no longer strong enough to restrain Herod. Although we read that “the king was sorry’ (14:9), he has taken that fatal plunge, and it is too late for him to turn back. He orders the murder of John the Baptist.
The degeneration of Herod’s spirit, as outlined in this episode, gives a remarkable picture of how sin can progress in our own lives. It begins when we decide to ignore the letter of the Word, denying its divinity. This is to imprison John the Baptist. He is still alive, but has little impact on our lives. But when his teachings come back to haunt us — especially the direct teachings of the Ten Commandments, the insatiable lusts of our darker side determine that John must be totally rejected and removed from our lives. John must die. The promptings of Herodias and the allurements of her daughter represent various stages of this degenerative process as they conspire to lure us into darker, more violent places. Eventually John is murdered and his head is brought in on a platter.
As this grim episode closes, we read that John’s disciples take the body away, bury it, and then go off to tell Jesus what happened to their beloved leader (14:12). John’s disciples, who take away his body and tenderly care for it, represent all those who care for the literal truths of the Word, even when others have disregarded, rejected, and even mutilated them. This is the part of us that knows that somehow the letter of the Word, no matter what people do to it, is worthy of our greatest respect.
Feeding the Five Thousand
13. And Jesus, hearing, departed thence in a ship into a deserted place by Himself; and the crowds hearing, followed Him on foot from the cities.
14. And Jesus going out saw a crowd of many, and was moved with compassion for them, and cured those of them that were ailing.
15. And when it was evening, His disciples came to Him saying, “The place is deserted, and the hour is already past; send away the crowds, that going into the villages, they may buy themselves food.”
16. But Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; give ye them to eat.”
17. And they say to Him, “We have nothing here except five loaves, and two fish.”
18. And He said, “Bring them hither to Me.”
19. And ordering the crowds to recline on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, looking up into heaven, He blessed, and breaking, gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples to the crowds.
20. And they did all eat, and were satisfied; and they took up the excess of the fragments, twelve baskets full.
21. And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and little children.
After hearing the news of John’s beheading, Jesus departs by boat to an isolated place to be by Himself. It appears that He needs time to grieve the loss of John the Baptist. But the multitudes follow Him, and do not give Him a chance to isolate Himself. Seeing the multitudes, He is moved with compassion for them and heals their sick (14:14). 2
This is a beautiful picture of Jesus’ divinity taking precedence over His humanity. Though He had every reason to mourn and spend some time alone, the needs of the multitude touch Him, and He is moved with compassion. There are times in our lives, too, when we feel the need to mourn some setback or disappointment, but at the same time we feel the call of service, and we are touched by the needs of others. Like Jesus, “we are moved with compassion.”
In the evening, the disciples come to Him and tell Him that it is time to send the multitudes away: “This is a deserted place and the hour is late,” they say. “Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food” (14:15). While the disciples, who are still in training, show a lack of compassion towards the multitudes, Jesus’ shows great compassion towards them. The disciples want Jesus to send the multitudes away, but Jesus says, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (14:16).
The disciples must have been surprised and confused. There are more than five thousand people there, many of whom are poor, sick, and hungry. The disciples do not have enough food, not nearly enough to feed them all. In fact, they only have five loaves and two fish. But what are they to give them? And how are they going to feed them all?
Jesus understands their confusion. But He is not concerned because He has a greater plan in mind. “Bring them here to Me,” He says to the disciples, and they bring Him five loaves of bread and two fish. Whenever there is duality in the Word, such as in this case where we read of “bread” and “fish,” we can be sure that there is a deeper, more spiritual meaning. Most often, this kind of duality represents the two essential aspects of divinity: goodness (“bread”) and truth (“fish”). 3
The word “bread” is associated with goodness and love because of its warmth and softness — also because of the good earth out of which it grows; the word “fish” is associated with truth and intelligence because of its coldness and hard boniness — also because of the clear, cool water (also a symbol of truth) in which it swims. Taken together, the qualities of goodness (“bread”) and truth (“fish”) constitute the essence of God. In order to understand the inner meaning of this parable, and the many parables which follow, it is important that we understand these basic symbols. 4
Jesus then takes the five loaves and the two fish from the disciples, looks up to heaven, and blesses what the disciples have given Him. Spiritually, this speaks of the love and truth that we have as human beings. How could we ever have enough to feed the multiudes? We sometimes don’t even have enough love to meet the needs of our own family, or enough wisdom meet the challenges that each day brings to us. But if we bring whatever we have to God, acknowledging Him as the source of everything, He will bless our efforts and, amazingly, multiply whatever love and truth we have already been given. As a result, the multitudes in us and around us will be fed to overflowing. As it is written, “He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and the disciples took up twelve baskets of the fragments that remained” (14:19-20).
Seen in the light of the continuous internal sense, this wonderful miracle is really a continuation of the lessons taught in the parables of regeneration. God indeed plants good seed in the good ground of a receptive heart (13:23). This is the heart that acknowledges God as the source of all things; it is the heart which has discovered the “pearl of great price” (13:46). It is this acknowledgment that enables us to bear fruit and produce good works in our lives “some a hundredfold” (13:23). In the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes we see the miraculous manifestation of this truth.
Many people see and acknowledge the workings of the Divine in the proliferation of seed into abundant harvest, and in the way the rivers and oceans continually replenish themselves. It is truly a wonder of nature. But here Jesus works an even greater miracle, demonstrating what He can do for each of us spiritually. He can fill us with His love (bread) and inspire us with His truth (fish) as long as we come to Him, seeking His blessing on our efforts and His power to do whatever He has commanded — no matter how impossible it might seem.
This is the second time Jesus has demonstrated His power over the forces of nature. He did this previously when He calmed the waves and the sea — illustrating the calmness and peace He can bring to each of us. At that time, the disciples could only sit back and wonder (8:27). This time, however, they have a very different role. In fact, they take an active part in the miracle, for they are the ones who bring the bread and fish to Jesus, and they are the ones who feed the multitude. Through this beautiful story, Jesus shows us the vivid and vital role that we can play in the salvation of souls. We would all have abundant love to give and truth to share if only we would first go to God for His blessing.
A practical application
Jesus gives thanks before the distribution of food. It is as if He is saying. “Thank you for this miracle that is about to be performed.” We, too, can try saying “Thank you, Lord,” even before our request is granted. “Thanks, God, for bringing the children home safely” (even though they haven’t left yet). “Thank you, Lord, for how gracious everyone was at this meeting” (even though the meeting hasn’t started yet). It’s amazing what can happen when we begin in gratitude!
Walking on Water
22. And straightway Jesus compelled His disciples to enter into a ship, and to go before Him unto the other side, while He sent the crowds away.
23. And sending the crowds away, He went up into the mountain by Himself to pray, and when evening had come He was there alone.
24. And the ship was already in the midst of the sea, tossed [about] by the waves, for the wind was contrary.
25. And in the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.
26. And the disciples, seeing Him walking on the sea, were disturbed, saying, “It is a phantom”; and they cried out from fear.
27. But straightway Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Have confidence; I am; be not afraid.”
28. And Peter answering Him said, “Lord, if Thou art, order me to come to Thee on the waters.”
29. And He said, “Come.”And Peter, stepping down from the ship, walked on the waters to come to Jesus.
30. But looking at the strong wind, he feared, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me”
31. And straightway Jesus, stretching out [His] hand, took [hold] of him, and says to him, “[O thou] of little faith, why didst thou doubt?”
32. And when they stepped into the ship the wind grew still.
33. And they that were in the ship, coming, worshiped Him saying, “Truly, Thou art the Son of God.”
Jesus, the Master Teacher, is carefully training His disciples, equipping them for their ministries. The central lesson, of course, regardless of individual ministries, is to rely totally on Jesus, to see Him as the center of their lives, and to keep their eye on Him at all times. If there is any wavering, any thought that they can succeed without Him, they will falter and fail.
In this next episode, Jesus demonstrates this truth in a most graphic way. He takes them down to the sea and sends them off in a boat by themselves. Meanwhile He goes up into a mountain to pray and stays there until evening. During this time away from Jesus, the disciples get into difficulty: “The boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary” (14:24).
The last time that the disciples were gathered together in a boat, there was another storm, and a raging sea. At that time Jesus was with them in the boat, seemingly asleep. It represents those times of spiritual temptation when we feel as though the Lord is present but does not care about us. This time, however, He appears to be altogether absent, representing an even deeper state of temptation. But the truth is that God never sleeps, and is never absent. Despite all appearances to the contrary — especially in times of greatest travail — God is intimately present with each of us, secretly sustaining and supporting us in ways that we can neither see nor sense. 5
This spiritual truth is represented by Jesus walking across the water toward their tempest-tossed boat. It is the fourth watch of the night, sometime between three and six in the morning, and therefore still dark — at least so dark that they are not able to recognize Jesus. Instead, they think they see a ghost: “When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying ‘It is a ghost.’ And they cried out with fear” (14:26). Nevertheless, Jesus seeks to comfort them, saying, “Be of good cheer. It is I; do not be afraid” (14:27). Peter is not so sure. He wants some proof that this really is Jesus and not a ghost. So he says, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water” (14:28).
In the previous episode the disciples fed the multitudes. They took part in a wonderful miracle, but they had done nothing miraculous themselves. In fact, up to this point the disciples have done nothing amazing. Although Jesus has indeed commissioned them to go forth and proclaim the good news, there is no record of them performing any miracles. No healings. No miracles. No demons cast out. No one raised from the dead. But all this is about to change as Jesus says to Peter the simple word, “Come” (14:29).
And then it happens. Peter steps out of the boat and starts walking on the water towards Jesus — a true miracle (14:29). Here we have a beautiful picture of simple, trusting faith: Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter responds in faith. The first great miracle for the disciples has begun. Peter is actually walking on water. But as soon as Peter shifts his attention to the “boisterous wind,” he is filled with fear and begins to sink. As he sinks down into the sea, he cries out to Jesus, ‘Lord, save me’” (14:30). Jesus immediately stretches out His hand, catches Peter, and together they get into the boat.
There are times in our life when our attention is caught by “boisterous winds,” the noise and commotion caused by the daily demands and disturbing thoughts that sometimes crowd out the awareness of God’s inmost presence. These are the times when we cannot see clearly, times when we doubt whether God is with us. Like Peter, we are uncertain as to whether Jesus is really there. “Lord, if it is you … ” he says. True faith does not doubt God’s presence or His unconditional love. In true faith there are no “ifs” at all.
Nevertheless, in spite of our doubts, God invites us to come to Him, to step out of our comfort zones and trust exclusively in Him. In taking this step, we must keep our eyes on
Jesus, looking neither to the right nor to the left, giving no thought to the boisterous winds that clamor for our attention. 6
Admittedly, we are not always successful. We sometimes find ourselves sinking into doubt and disbelief, dismay and despair, losing our way, getting off track. Even so, God is always there for us, with outstretched arms and a warm smile, saying: “O you of little faith. Why did you doubt?” (14:31). 7
A moment later, Jesus and Peter are together in the boat and all is well: “And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased” (14:32).
In an earlier episode when Jesus calmed the wind and sea, the disciples responded by saying, “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (8:27). This time, however, their response is very different. We read, “Then those who were in the boat came and worshipped Him, saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God’” (14:33).
They have learned their lesson well. From now on, Jesus is to be the source and center of their life, and the object of their worship. In their eyes He is no longer “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (1:1). His divinity is beginning to shine through His humanity. Slowly and steadily He is revealing Himself as the Son of God.
The Faith of Gennesaret
34. And having crossed over, they came into the land of Gennesaret.
35. And the men of that place, knowing Him, sent out into that whole countryside, and brought to Him all that had an illness;
36. And implored Him, that they might only touch the hem of His garment, and as many as touched were saved.
As this chapter closes, Jesus and His disciples come to Gennesaret, a city on the northwestern shore of Galilee. Here they meet people who demonstrate a complete faith in Jesus’ power to heal — very much a contrast to the wavering faith of Peter to whom Jesus said, “O, you of little faith. Why did you doubt?”
Unlike Peter, who said “Lord if it is you,” the people of Gennesaret recognize Jesus immediately and bring to Him everyone who is sick (14:35). So strong is their faith that they believe that the sick can be made well merely by touching the hem of His garment. Such is the simplicity and greatness of their faith. “And as many as touched it were made perfectly well” (14:36).
This episode is similar to the one about the woman with an issue of blood who was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment (see 9:20). In the commentary for that episode it was pointed out that the phrase “the hem of His garment” represents the most external aspects of the Word — the literal sense. Just as clothing protects us from extremes of weather, the truths of the Word protect us from spiritual harm. So clothing, in general, signifies the strong, protecting quality of divine truth. We read in the Psalms, for example that “The Lord is clothed, He has girded Himself with strength” (Psalm 93:1). This refers to the power of the Lord’s divine truth. 8
To believe that the letter of the Word has Divine Power within it, and to use it in our lives, is to come into the protection of God, and be healed of our infirmities. This is the power of the Word, even in its most external form. When we read the Word, live according to its teachings, “touching them” and allowing them, in turn to touch our lives, we, like the people of Gennesaret, are made “perfectly well.”
This chapter, which begins with the beheading of John the Baptist, ends with the healing of “all who were ill” in the land of Gennesaret (14:36). The literal sense of the Word, despite Herod’s attempts to destroy it, still prevails. John the Baptist, representing the healing truths of the literal sense of the Word, lives on.
1. This is Herod Antipas, a Roman governor. He is the son of King Herod. the one who was determined to have Jesus murdered because the wise men called Him “King of the Jews” — a perceived threat to Herod’s power (See Matthew 2:2, 16). According to historians, Herodias left her husband — Herod’s brother — to enter into an adulterous affair with Herod. She also brought along her daughter from her first marriage.
2. The same expression is used earlier when Jesus sees the weary and scattered multitudes and is “moved with compassion” (9:14)
3. Arcana Coelestia 3880:4: “In the Word dual expressions commonly occur in which one has reference to what is celestial or good, the other to what is spiritual or true, so that the Divine marriage may exist in every individual part of the Word, and so a marriage of good and truth.” See also Arcana Coelestia 590: “Every idea comprising a person’s thought contains something from the understanding and something from the will, that is, something from his thinking and something from his love…. Therefore, in the prophets, especially in Isaiah, dual expressions for everything occur almost everywhere, the one embodying what is spiritual, the other what is celestial.”
4. Swedenborg does not use the term “symbol.” Instead he speaks about “correspondences,” which is actually a more accurate term. By “correspondences” he means that all things on earth have an exact correspondence with all things in heaven. Earthly bread, therefore is not a symbol of heavenly love; it corresponds to that love. Similarly, water corresponds to truth, because it has a corresponding function. On earth water quenches our natural thirst and cleanses our physical bodies. In heaven truth quenches our spiritual thirst and cleanses our souls. Swedenborg puts it like this: “The literal sense consists of such things as are in the world, but the spiritual sense consists of such things as are in heaven, and since the conjunction of heaven with the world is by means of correspondences, therefore the Word is given in such a way that every detail, even down to the least jot (iota) are in correspondence. In fact, the Word has been written by means of pure correspondences” (Heaven and Hell 114).
5. True Christian Religion 126: “In temptation it looks as if a person is left alone, but this is not so, since God is then most closely present with a person, in the deepest recesses of a person’s spirit, secretly providing support.”
6. Swedenborg states that all can be saved as long as they believe in God and keep the commandments: “All human beings that are born, however many and of whatever religion, can be saved, provided only that they acknowledge God and live according to the commandments in the Decalogue” (Divine Providence 253). While Swedenborg acknowledges that God has provided a wide variety of religions, he also asserts that Christians must keep their focus on Jesus alone if they are to be saved: “No one from among Christians enters heaven unless he believes in the Lord God the Savior, and approaches Him alone” (True Christian Religion 107).
7. True Christian Religion 787: “Because people are natural, they think naturally. And since conjunction with God must exist in thought, and thus a person’s affection, this is also the case when people think about God as a Person. Conjunction with an invisible God is like a conjunction of the eye's vision with the expanse of the universe, the limits of which are invisible. It is also like vision in mid-ocean, which reaches out into the air and upon the sea, and is lost. On the other hand, conjunction with a visible God, is like beholding a man in the air or on the sea spreading forth his hands and inviting to his arms. For all conjunction of God with people must be also a reciprocal conjunction of people with God; and no such reciprocation is possible except with a visible God.”
8. Arcana Coelestia 9959: “Truths are what protect goods from evils and falsities, and resist them; and all the power which good has is by means of truths.”