Herod’s Troubled Conscience

The lives of Jesus and Herod Antipas were entwined in many different ways though they had never met when reports of the miraculous works of Jesus began to filter back to the Tetrarch (Cf. Matthew 14:1, 2; Mark 6:7-16; and, Luke 9:7-9). Herod Antipas became the Tetrarch of Galilee at the death of his father, Herod the Great, on April 8, 4 B.C. Herod the Great was the king who had been troubled by the report from the wise men that they had seen the star of the One born king of the Jews. Jesus was the child that Herod desperately tried to kill when he had all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two brutally massacred. Herod Antipas could not have been oblivious to those events and the extreme paranoia of his father. Yet, for most of the next thirty-two years both Jesus and Herod Antipas had lived in Galilee, within twenty miles of one another, without ever meeting. 

The ghastly beheading of John the Baptist at the Machaerus fortress near the Dead Sea had happened only a matter of days or a few weeks before Herod received word of some amazing things that were happening in his territory through the ministry of Jesus and His disciples. For nearly a year, Jesus had been conducting His ministry in Capernaum, but now He had trained and commissioned His disciples to do the same things He had been doing—healing the sick, casting out demons, cleansing the lepers, and raising the dead (Matthew 10:8). When the disciples returned to Jesus in Capernaum, the news of their success spread like wildfire throughout the region. J. W. Shepard describes what was the result: 

The fame of the name of Jesus spread over Galilee as never before and penetrated into the golden Palace of Herod Antipas in Tiberias.[1]

Tiberias was a city built in 18 A.D. according to Roman architectural styles with all the roads crossing at right angles. It became the primary residence of this wicked king who was more concerned with luxury and pleasure than with ruling equitably for the advantage of his subjects. Herod’s palatial and grandiose residence itself was built, wittingly ot unwittingly, on the ruins of a Jewish cemetery which caused that wicked ruler to fall even more out of favor with the Jews. The city was lined with markets, shops, statues of Herod, a luxurious bathhouse, and that magnificent royal palace. Galileans were enticed to move there by the promise of free land, free housing, and various tax exemptions, but the desecration of the cemetery kept most of them away. Jesus was apparently among the Jews who stayed away from Tiberias because there is no mention in Scripture of Him ever passing through that city for any reason. 

There were many pressing concerns that had occupied the attention of Herod over the previous years—his trip to Rome where he met and married his brother’s wife, Herodias; his troubles with his former wife, Phasaelis of Nabatea; and the resulting war with Aretas, Phasaelis’s father, that ended in Herod’s defeat. In such circumstances, Herod tried to find solace from the troubles of his kingdom by immersing himself in sinful pleasures, in vanity and in his numerous building projects. What was happening among the religious segment of his populace was not a high priority for him at this time. “A palace is late in hearing spiritual news”[2] and, thus, Jesus had been conducting a powerful ministry without arousing the suspicion of Herod—until now.      

Yet, within a short time after the death of John the Baptist, there were reports that reached Herod’s ears that caused him a great deal of consternation. There were three reports spread in that region in an effort to explain what was happening through Jesus and His disciples. Luke 9:7, 8 says that Herod heard what “was happening; and he was greatly perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen.” Indeed, Herod was very perplexed and more than perplexed. He “was ‘utterly at loss’ as to what he was to think of Jesus. . . He had no doubt heard of Christ before. It was the startling theories about Him which perplexed Herod.”[3] The crown always rests very insecurely on the heads of wicked, despotic rulers whose god is their belly. And so it was with Herod. Like his father, Antipas was troubled by any challenge—real or imagined—to his rule, especially in light of his recent defeat by the armies of Aretas. Yet, Herod was troubled also at a deeper level. His conscience was accusing him every day and he could not be reassured no matter how hard he tried. These circulating reports did not originate with Herod, but they came to him through others. Immediately, Herod seized on one only as the true explanation for Jesus’ miraculous powers. Mathew 14:2 records that he “said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’” That must have been a terrifying thought for the despot. The suggestion that Jesus’ miracles were the result of John rising from the dead was probably due to the popular revolt of the people following Herod’s terrible deed of the beheading. As Calvin remarked on these reports:

I have no doubt that the hatred of this tyrant and loathing for the wicked murder was, as often happens, the cause of this rumour. The superstition that the dead return to life in another person was firm in men’s minds, as I have said elsewhere. Now they seize on a cognate idea, that when Herod cruelly put this holy man to death he did not achieve his end, for John was suddenly raised from the dead by the wonderful power of God, and would be a fiercer avenger of his enemy’s wickedness. . . It is surprising that when they put forward these different opinions the true one did not occur to any of them, especially since the contemporary situation pointed them to Christ.[4]

These servants of Herod were most likely his court ministers or counselors. They were the people with whom he was in the habit of unburdening his heart and revealing his thoughts. In this instance, he shares with them how guilty his conscience was. As David Brown commented, “The murdered prophet haunted his guilty breast like a spectre, and seemed to him alive again and clothed with unearthly powers in the person of Jesus.”[5] Amazingly, though, John had never performed any miracles and his resurrection from the dead would not have explained the wondrous reports of what Jesus and His disciples were doing. 

In overlooking the obvious and true opinion of the origin of the miracles that Jesus was doing, Herod and others manifested the blindness of their own hearts. It was necessary that the Messiah would be first heralded by one who came with the austerity of Elijah which was true of John the Baptist. As Isaiah 40:3 says, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’” John had prepared such a way for the Lord, the Messiah, in the wilderness—the desert—just as Isaiah had prophesied. John had pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Yet, both Herod and the people overlooked the obvious explanation—that Jesus was the Messiah of prophecy. Once again, Calvin explains the situation for us:

But what they are thinking is that he [i.e. John—DR] is performing miracles for the first time to prove his resurrection and to witness that he had been a holy prophet of God irreligiously killed by Herod and that now he came forth, so to say sacrosanct, that none might dare to hurt him again.[6]

There is no reasoning that could calm the troubled of troubled conscience of Herod, though. He remained impenitent, but deeply troubled. His perplexity was not of the inquisitive type, but his mind was filled with terror that his deeds had been found out. As Calvin says, “As for Herod, as I mentioned earlier, it was not his own idea that John was risen; but as bad consciences waver in terror and bend at every breeze, he easily conceived what he feared. And God often alarms the ungodly with blind terrors. They try to harden themselves against outside assaults, but they cannot get any rest from the harsh punishment of their inward tormentor.”[7]  

These reports of Jesus’ ministry and His disciples placed Him above all the great prophets of the Old Testament “because He manifested in Himself the greatness of all combined.”[8] These popular reports were so stupendous that Herod continued to seek an opportunity to meet Jesus face-to-face, but not with the desire of a true penitent who wanted to bow his knees before the King of Kings. Yet, that meeting with Jesus would not take place for another year. As long as it was day, Jesus continued to labor and to finish the work that the Lord had given Him.    

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL.

http://www.vanguardpresbyterianchurch.com Please mail any contributions to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540 

[1] J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), 254. 

[2] Ibid., 255. 

[3] Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1960), 241.  

[4] John Calvin, A harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Volume II (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 137-8. 

[5] David Brown, The Four Gospels (London, England: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), 83.  

[6] Calvin, Ibid., 138. 

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Shepard, Ibid., 256. 

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