Capitol Bible Study: A Politician’s Downfall (Mark 6:14-32)
Mark 6:14-32 And King Herod heard of it, for His name had become well known; and people were saying, “John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.” 15 But others were saying, “He is Elijah.” And others were saying, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, “John, whom I beheaded, has risen!” 17 For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; 20 for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him. 21 A strategic day came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee; 22 and when the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.” 23 And he swore to her, “Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 Immediately she came in a hurry to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back his head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison, 28 and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about this, they came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb.
There were many leaders of Israel who were named “Herod,” several of whom are mentioned in the New Testament. The Herod of today’s passage is Herod Antipas. He ruled over the regions of Galilee and Perea from 6AD-39 AD, a time period that covered all but the first few years of Jesus’ earthly life.
HEROD ANTIPAS’ STRENGTHS:
Any leader who stays in one position for forty-two years must have some positive qualities, and Antipas was no exception.
- He was a capable economic leader. Archaeological excavations show that his region prospered during his reign, even in the rural areas where one might expect poverty.
- He led some large infrastructure projects. He was not much of a builder compared to his father, Herod the Great, but Antipas did restore the city of Sepphoris located three miles from Nazareth. He also built a new capital for Galilee on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, named Tiberias in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar. Tiberius had a palace, a stadium, and hot baths, but it was reportedly built over a cemetery and so many devout Jews refused to enter the city.
- He was politically astute. Unlike his brother and co-tetrarch, Herod Philip, Antipas took care not to offend his Jewish subjects with graven images and pictures of pagan temples on the coins he had minted.
- He was religious. He recognized that John the Baptist was close to God and he enjoyed listening to him teach (Mark 6:20).
HEROD ANTIPAS’ WEAKNESSES:
Though Antipas had some obvious strengths, today’s passage shows that he was also a man with many serious character flaws.
- He was overly-ambitious (6:14). In Mark 6:14, Antipas is called “King Herod,” since this is how he liked to be addressed, but this was a title he never actually held. His father, Herod the Great, had made it clear before he died that he wanted future leadership in Israel to be divided among his sons. Since Israel was a client state of Rome, Antipas and his brothers traveled there after their father’s death to receive their commissions. Antipas argued that he ought to inherit the whole kingdom, but his brothers maintained that their father’s will ought to be honored. The Emperor upheld Herod the Great’s wishes, and Antipas was appointed as a tetrarch (a ruler of a fourth) under Roman control (Luke 3:1). Years after the death and resurrection of Christ, Antipas traveled to Rome again, this time to request the right to use the title King. His request was denied by the Emperor. Furthermore, his brother, Agrippa, accused Antipas of stashing weapons and conspiring against Rome, upon which the Emperor removed him entirely from office.
- He was Guilt-ridden (6:14-16). Antipas thought Jesus was John the Baptist who had come back to life. This was a manifestation of his guilty conscience. He knew he had sinned against God by marrying Herodias and murdering John the Baptist. Instead of confessing his sin to the loving and merciful God, he tried unsuccessfully to repress his guilt.
As one commentator explains, “Whenever a man does an evil thing the whole world becomes his enemy. Inwardly, he cannot command his thoughts; and, whenever he allows himself to think, his thoughts return to the wicked thing that he has done. No man can avoid living with himself; and when his inward self is an accusing self, life becomes intolerable. Outwardly, he lives in the fear that he will be found out and that someday the consequences of his evil deed will catch up on him, in the uncertainty as to who knows what he has done. … Because the sinning life is the haunted life, sin is never worth the cost.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, Mark 6:14-15, p 147.)
- He was immoral (6:17-18, 22). He divorced his wife and stole his brother’s wife (6:17-18), which was clearly against God’s law (Lev 18:16, 20:21). He also approved of his teenage step-daughter dancing seductively before his guests.
- He was impulsive (6:23). He made an outrageous public promise that he should never have made.
- He was Insecure and controlled by others (26). Antipas wanted desperately to be regarded as a great man and strong leader, but he was actually controlled by the opinions of others, especially that of his evil “wife,” Herodias. This explains why he made an impossible promise to Herodias’ daughter (“I will give you up to half of my kingdom”), when as a leader under Rome he had no authority to do so. It is also why he would not renege on this outrageous vow and lose face in front of those assembled at his birthday banquet. The historian Josephus adds that Antipas also feared that John was so popular with the people that he had the potential to raise a rebellion against him.
- He was persistently unrepentant. God is always merciful. About eighteen months after Antipas killed John the Baptist, the Messiah Jesus himself stood before him, giving him one more chance to repent. Had Antipas learned any lessons after his transgressions regarding John? Unfortunately, he had not. Luke 23:11 says, “And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Jesus with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate.”
LIFE LESSONS FOR TODAY:
Jesus once warned his followers, “Watch out! Beware of the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15). Perhaps by this he meant that all leaders could be tempted to follow the hypocritical and self-centered path of Antipas. Antipas certainly serves as a model for how some people function today. They compromise doing what is right whenever they fear that doing so might interfere with their personal or political ambitions. They may feel a tinge of guilt for their ungodly choices, but they quickly justify their behavior by saying they were backed into a corner by the expectations and demands of this or that person or group. In truth, they foolishly fear the rejection of men more than they fear the judgment of the holy God.
© 2014 Frank Erb