Herod’s long-awaited encounter with Jesus before His crucifixion is one of the most striking interactions in the Gospels. Alistair Begg notes that Jesus’ silence at Herod’s barrage of questions drew out Herod’s true nature, revealing a now-hardened heart. When we are presented with Christ and discover we cannot force him to act according to our liking, will we respond with the scorn that Herod embodied? Or will we respond with worship and submission?
Well, for those of you who were present this morning, we got as far as Luke 23:7. Having begun at 22:63, we said that we wanted to move through it as directly as we could in order that we might keep pace with the sense of urgency and the movement in the text itself.
And now we come to these very striking verses between 8 and 12, and we look again at the encounter between Jesus and Herod. You might want to give a title to this evening’s study. My title for it was “The Sound of Silence.” “The Sound of Silence,” with a backward glance at the ’60s and Simon and Garfunkel. But nevertheless, it is “The Sound of Silence.”
Now, Luke tells us that the arrival of Jesus was an occasion of great delight for Herod, because for some considerable time he had been hoping that the events of life would fall out in such a way so as to give him the opportunity of meeting Jesus of Nazareth. Since he was the ruler over the districts where Jesus had mostly appeared in his public ministry, the news of his miracles, the record of his teaching, the account of his personality and his influence would have routinely found its way back to him in his position of authority.
In chapter 9—and you may want to turn to it, just to make sure that it’s there—in chapter 9, Luke had recorded for us a time when the rumor was going around that John the Baptist had risen from the dead. That, of course, was a great concern to Herod, because he thought he had dealt with him, and in Luke 9:9, “Herod said, ‘I beheaded John. [So] who, then, is this I[’m] hear[ing] such things about?’ And he tried to see him.” I think The Message paraphrases it, “‘But I killed John—took off his head. So who is this … I keep hearing about?’ [And] curious, he looked for a chance to see him in action.”
On another occasion, when Jesus was making his way towards Jerusalem—and you go to Luke chapter 13 to get ahold of this; it’s a long time since we’ve studied it. But on his way to Jerusalem, the Pharisees came to him and suggested that it would be a good time for him to relocate, because apparently Herod was now looking for a chance to kill him. Now, you need to look down at verse 31: “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” And the reply of Jesus in verse 32: “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’” The Lion of Judah was not about to be chased by this weak and cunning fox.
And now, in this instance here, recorded for us in the twenty-third chapter of Luke, Herod is curious in the prospect that Jesus may actually perform for him. And that’s what you read there in the eighth verse: he had been for a long time wanting to see him, because from what he’d heard about him, he thought that it might be possible for him to perform a miracle. And “he plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.” We said this morning that the way in which Jesus responded to the question of the leaders was on account of the fact that he knew exactly what their motives were. And we have to assume that this is the exact same in relationship to Herod. Look at verse 9; it’s one of the most amazing verses, for me, in the whole of the Gospel records. Herod “plied him.” “Plied him.” Even the word in English is a terrific word, isn’t it? “He plied him.” He worked him. He kept coming back to him. He was on him, “with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.”
Now what is this? Is this Jesus missing another evangelistic opportunity? We said this morning that when they came to him and they said, “Tell us, are you the Messiah?” he essentially dismissed their question. Why? Because he knew the motives of their hearts. And here comes an individual who is apparently full of questions, had been longing to see Jesus, hoped that he might perform a miracle, gets him one-on-one, agonizes over the opportunity, plies him with every question he can come up with, and all we hear is the sound of silence. In fact, all the noise that is in this little five verse section is coming from somebody other than Jesus: the noise of Herod’s voice; the noise that comes from the chief priest and the teachers of the law, who are “vehemently accusing him,” urging upon Jesus all of their accusations in the hearing of Herod; then the noise of the soldiers ridiculing and mocking and all of the tomfoolery that goes on there. And the striking thing about it is the silence—is the sound of silence.
Look at the progression as Luke gives it to us: Herod “had been wanting to see him,” verse 8. “He plied him with many questions,” verse 9. He “ridiculed and mocked him,” verse 11. And he “sent him back to Pilate,” verse 11. As soon as Herod realized that Jesus was not going to give him what he wanted—as soon as he realized that Jesus was not going to perform a miracle for him, was not going to respond to his superficial curiosity—then Herod gave vent to his real feelings. It would have been possible, wouldn’t it, I suppose, for the story to read that he plied Jesus with many questions, Jesus gave him no answer, and then Luke went on to tell us that he prostrated himself before the Lord Jesus and cried out to him for mercy and for forgiveness—cried out, “Lord Jesus, I know why it is that you’re not answering me. I can understand that, but please…” But no. As soon as he doesn’t get what he wants, then his real attitude comes to the fore, and along with the soldiers, he drops down to the level of those who are subservient to him, and he joins the soldiers in this dreadful charade: ridiculing and mocking him, dressing him up in a shining robe, and then kicking him out and sending him back to Pilate.
So with the Son of God before him, all that Herod could ultimately do was join the mocking crowd. Right? He has Christ the Savior before him, and at the end of it all, he dresses him up, he ridicules, he mocks him, and he sends him away.
Now, does this send any kind of chill through your body? I hope it does. Do you see that there is a frightening aspect to this? I hope you do. Because there was a time in Herod’s life when he actually wasn’t like this. Mark tells us in chapter 6 that Herod was actually pretty well into the preaching of John the Baptist, that he liked to listen to John the Baptist preach. So there’s a sense in which people said to Herod, you know, “Would you like to come to John the Baptist’s service?” And Herod said, “Well, that would be very nice. Perhaps I’ll sit at the back, but I’ll come anyway.” And the testimony was that when he attended the services, he didn’t fall asleep, but he listened to John the Baptist preach, and, in a strange sentence, Mark records for us that as a result of that, “he was greatly puzzled” and “he did many things.” So he listened carefully, he liked the preaching, it puzzled him a bit, and then apparently what he did was he went out and “did many things.”
So you get the idea that somehow or another, when he listened to John the Baptist preach, it agitated him. It stirred him up. He was tender to it. He was sensitive to it. Perhaps he went out and he said, “Now, I think what he’s saying is that it is time for me to turn over a new leaf,” or “Perhaps what he’s saying to me is that I need to be a better person than I am.” And so he misinterprets it, perhaps, as a form of moralism. But his wife says to him, you know, “Every time you come back from one of those John the Baptist services, you’re a changed man, but it only lasts for a wee while.” Because when the preacher’s words began to cut right into his heart, began to address him in a personal way in his life—when the preacher’s words began to confront him with his own sin—then, at that point, he didn’t want to hear any more.
Because, you see, John the Baptist was gutsy enough to put his finger on the part of Herod’s life that was so indicative of his mess. ’Cause Herod had seduced his half brother Philip’s wife—got rid of his own wife, stole his half brother’s wife, shacked up with her, tried to make everybody accept it, the way people do: “After all, it’s in the past now, it’s a change, it’s not embarrassing anymore,” and so on. But here comes this crusty little preacher, and the preacher says to him, puts his hand on his chest, and he says, “Herod, it’s actually not right for you to have your brother’s wife.” Well, you see, at that point he got a distinct dislike for John the Baptist’s preaching.
Now, the story, the record of it, is best in Mark chapter 6. You may want just to turn to it. I think I’m going to read it to you, because some of you are looking at me in such a way that I think this story is perhaps news to you.
John had confronted Herod. His message was clear: “Repent.” Mark 6:17: “Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married.” You gotta be careful who you marry, gentlemen. Ladies, you better be careful who you marry. Getting married is a big deal. This lady was not a good influence on him. He’d started it off, but she wasn’t helping anything at all. “For John had been saying to Herod,” verse 18, “‘It[’s] not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and [she] wanted to kill him. But she was[n’t] able to, because Herod feared John … protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.” And here’s the sentence I was referring to: “When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.” In the King James Version, it says, “[And] he did many things.”
Well, “Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. [And] when the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.” Now, you gotta try and get the picture here, right? This is basically a high-level party. This is the Hefner mansion in Chicago. That’ll be the kind of thing that it is. If you think that she was a ballet dancer, you’re not getting the picture at all. Okay? So there is a kind of seductive, lustful dimension to what is going on.
And the king said to the girl, “You dance well, you know. You just ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I’ll give you, up to half my kingdom.”
So she went out and said to her mom, “Hey Mom, Herod says he’ll give me anything I want. What should I ask for?”
“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.
At once the girl hurried in to the king with her request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
The king was greatly distressed because of his oaths and his dinner guests, and he didn’t want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head.
This is staggering isn’t it? I mean, this is amazing.
And the man went, beheaded John in the prison, brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl; she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
And you can imagine this scene as they took his decapitated body and somehow or another stuck it back together and, as best they could, embalming it in such a way that it would have some measure of dignity to it in death.
And suddenly, in an instant, the combination had been more than Herod could handle: the party, his pride, the promise with an oath, trapped! Maybe he said to himself on that occasion, “Well, I’ll deal with things one day, but I’ll deal with things my time and my way. I’ll deal with things when I’m ready.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons he fancied the opportunity of meeting Jesus: he thought that on his terms and in his time, without influence or involvement on the part of anyone else, he would be able, just one day, to hook up with Jesus, ply him with questions, and get what he wanted from Jesus.
But on the one occasion he got a face-to-face with Jesus, Jesus wouldn’t speak to him. Jesus wouldn’t answer him. At the time when Herod was ready to do business with Jesus, in actual fact, deep in his heart, he wasn’t interested. And Jesus called that by responding in silence, thus giving Herod the opportunity to display his true colors, and he gives vent to his feelings by saying, “Well then, guys, let’s just ridicule him and blaspheme him and abuse him and dress him up in an elegant robe and ship him back to Pilate.”
You see, what had happened to Herod is what can happen to any man. He was trapped by his lustful heart. If you like, I think that Herod had a sex problem. I think he had a problem with lust. And that problem, which he thought he was handling in a quiet, secret way, he was not handling at all, and what it was actually doing was making a dreadful and damning impact on his soul, so much so that as time passed, he was less and less in a position to respond to the good news of the gospel. And I think this one area is simply symptomatic of his unwillingness to deal with sin in general in his life. There had been time in the past when his conscience had been tender. But that was way in the past! Now, in Luke 23, he has a hard heart. He doesn’t respond to the silence of Jesus, as I said to you, by seizing the moment to admit his sin, to ask for forgiveness. No, he simply seizes it as an opportunity for amusement. The silence of Jesus infuriates him, and his true colors are displayed.
Ultimately, his rejection of John’s preaching led to the point where he could only ridicule the one of whom John had spoken. For John’s whole ministry was essentially, “[Behold], the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” He essentially was saying, “Don’t follow me, follow him. Don’t come to me, go to him.” My good friend Sinclair puts it this way: “Unless we silence sin, sin will silence conscience. Unless we pay attention to God’s Word, the day may come when we despise God’s Son and reject him, and then God will have nothing more to say to us.” Do you get that? Do you see why I say that this phrase, this sentence, “He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer,” is one of the most staggering, chilling sentences in the whole of the New Testament.
Now, don’t misunderstand things. I keep bumping into people who have a perverse view of the work of God in salvation. I keep meeting people who think that people who desire to trust in Christ may be prevented from doing so—shut out, as it were, by God—and at the same time that others who have no interest in trusting Christ will be compelled to trust Christ against their will. The New Testament teaches neither of those things. The New Testament encourages us to realize that anyone who will come to Jesus in childlike trust, repenting of our sins and embracing his offer of salvation, will be saved—that there was nobody who desired to know the forgiveness of God who didn’t receive it, and there is no one who’s in the family of God who was compelled against their will.
So what do we make of Herod? Herod dresses him up as a king, not realizing that he was; sends him back to Pilate; and verse 12: “[And] that day Herod and Pilate became friends—[and] before this they had been enemies.”
Now let me wrap this up; our time is gone.
We said this morning that here in this section—and indeed, it proceeds beyond this, inasmuch as Isaiah 53 foreshadows the cross—but here in this section we had a classic fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah that he was despised and rejected by men, and a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief and suffering. Because if you consider from 22:63 on all the way through—the response of the Sanhedrin, the response of Pilate, the response of Herod, the response of the soldiers both in the context of his initial custody in 22 and their involvement with Herod here in 23—when all of these individuals took all that their human eyes could see and all that their human minds could apprehend, and when they added it all up in relation to looking at Jesus, the result was zero. It amounted to nothing. When they took everything that they saw and when they processed everything that they thought and they added it all up, it came out as a zero. And they were able to despise him and to reject him.
When men and women see this lovely servant of God and find no beauty in him, then it reveals the bankruptcy of their human emotions. When men and women are one with those who despise and reject him, then it exposes the misguidedness of the human will. When men and women appraise Jesus and conclude that he is nothing, then it condemns their minds as corrupted by, and participants in, their sinfulness. And what this ultimately reminds us of is this: that every aspect of human nature is inadequate, and every avenue along which by nature we might arrive at truth and respond to God. Every aspect of our human nature is opposed to God, isn’t it? “There is none that seeks God. No, not one.” Every avenue down which we may go, by nature, we’ll find to be a dead-end street. And nothing but divine revelation can make us wise for salvation, can make Jesus known to us, and can draw us near to Christ.
Now, don’t let me overdramatize this, but let me say this as clearly as I can. Let’s say you’re a teenager here tonight, and you’ve been listening to me and others preach, and there is a tenderness in your heart to the gospel, but you have never believed. And for whatever reason, you’ve determined that there is going to come a day when you’ve done x or y, when you’ve fulfilled this goal, when you’ve reached that dream, and when that day comes, you’re going to deal with all of this, because at the moment, frankly, you’re very tender towards the things of Christ, and although you sometimes kick up a fuss about coming to the services, somehow or another, there’s still a part of you that is very open to the claims of Jesus. Then I want to say to you: trust Christ while the going’s good. Trust him tonight, for two reasons. One, you may die tonight and go to hell. Two, you may live under a prolonged teaching of the Bible and reach a point where, when your true colors are revealed, you find that the tenderness of your teenage years has been replaced with such a hardness of heart that you actually have no interest in Christ at all, save to despise him and reject him.
So many old songs flood me when I speak like this, ’cause I sound like people I used to listen to when I was a boy. The archaic old song:
Wait not till the shadows lengthen,
Till you older grow.
[Tarry] now and [live] for Jesus,
Everywhere you go.
Life at best is very brief,
Like the falling of a leaf,
Like the binding of a sheaf
Be in time.
Now, if that’s a word to the teenagers, what of those of you who are in your mature years, and still you do not believe? Do you have even an inkling that you should? Then just lay hold on his great and precious promises. He died for sinners. If you’re a sinner, he died for you. So trust him.
Let’s pray together:
Lord God in heaven, look upon us in your mercy, we pray. Save us from our foolish, rambling theology that unsettles those who should be confident and makes confident those who should be unsettled—that so makes a mess of the Bible as to suggest that those who want to believe will be prevented from believing because somehow or another they’re not marked out for belief, and that those who actually believe, believe against their will. I’ve been thinking about this, and I can’t find any place where God believed for somebody. It seems to me that everybody I met in the New Testament believed or chose not to believe.
Lord, I pray that no one here tonight will go home thinking there’ll be another day and another time when I can meet Jesus personally, I can ply him with questions, I can get my answers then. But on that day, there may be no answers. So then, come, Lord Jesus, and make your home in our hearts, we pray. Amen. Amen.
 Luke 22:67 (paraphrased).
 See Mark 6:20.
 Mark 6:20n (NIV 1984).
 Mark 6:23–29 (paraphrased).
 John 1:29 (NIV 1984).
 See Isaiah 53:3.
 Romans 3:11–12 (paraphrased).
 John R. Colgan, “Mighty Army of the Young” (1891).
 “Life at Best Is Very Brief” (1892).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.