Herod Antipas was a son of the infamous Herod the Great, who ordered the slaughter of children two years and younger in a diabolical attempt to kill Jesus, whom he reckoned as a threat to his throne (cf. Matthew 2:16-18).
As the fame of Jesus grew, word eventually reached Herod Antipas. Jesus was not just another itinerant preacher—there were many such preachers in those days—but He could attract multitudes numbering in the thousands by His supernatural ability.
This alone would be a matter of concern for the authorities. Anyone who could muster thousands, especially one of whom it was whispered that he might be the Promised One, would raise the red flag.
The authorities were constantly on the look-out for potential trouble-makers and insurgents. To keep his political power, Herod Antipas had to prove to his Roman overlords that he could keep the peace.
But when news of Jesus reached Antipas’ ears, his response was rather odd for a savvy politician who had no qualms in ruthlessly snuffing out anyone suspected of getting in his way.
“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him (Mat 14:1-2).”
Imagine the quizzical looks on the faces of Antipas’ servants when he made such a strange remark. They were probably expecting him to convey instructions to keep a close watch on this Jesus of Nazareth; however, their boss compared this preacher with another preacher who died not long before.
Matthew and Luke both told us the cause of this strange behaviour.
“For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her (Mat 14:3-4).”
“But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison (Luke 3:19-20).”
According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, Antipas met Herodias while he visited his half-brother Philip. Antipas and Herodias agreed to divorce their respective spouses and live together. They were therefore committing adultery according to God’s law.
John had boldly preached against Antipas and Herodias. Herodias demanded that John be killed, yet Herod was afraid to do so.
“Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly (Mark 6:19-20).”
Antipas did not hear John gladly with the intent to obey; he did not keep John safe out of respect and wanted to make amends for his sins. Antipas did all that because he feared a possible uproar by the people if he killed John.
So he tried to buy John’s silence by being kind to him, but without the slightest remorse. This was the wily politician at work, on the one hand staving off a public outcry which could jeopardise his political career and on the other hand trying to stop Herodias demanding for John’s head.
Herod Antipas, whom Jesus would later label a fox (cf. Luke 13:32)—a picture of his slyness and untrustworthiness—probably thought he was a brilliant political maneuverer. But it all came apart for him on his birthday.
He threw a birthday party for himself and invited his cronies and political allies over for a time of drunken debauchery, “when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him (cf. Mark 6:22).”
The sense was not lost that the lecherous Antipas lusted after the young woman who enticed him with her sensuous dancing. To impress her and his guests, he declared to her, “Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom (Mark 6:22-23)!”
After consulting with her mother, the young woman came back and said to the pompous king: “I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist (Mark 6:25)!”
Immediately Antipas’ countenance fell. The smugness washed off his face, replaced by a look of deep regret and helplessness. No, he was not sorry for John. He was dismayed at having been out-maneuvered. The fox was outplayed at his own game.
“And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother (Mark 6:27-28).”
This is the Scripture’s profile of a moral weakling, Herod Antipas. He had the chance to repent at the preaching of John but chose his life of sin. He could have opened his eyes to see the evidence of the signs Jesus performed but chose to remain morally blind with contempt.
“And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate (Luke 23:11).”
Herod Antipas hardened his heart against God. Like Antipas, many today have heard the Word. Like Antipas, many today are aware of the mighty works of Jesus. And like Antipas, many today harden their hearts and choose a life of sin.
What will it be for us? Obedience is not a one-time act. It is a conscious, conscientious and daily act. It is putting the glory of God before self-interest. Herod Antipas placed himself at the centre of his puny, vain universe. This was the reason for his moral weakness.