Herod Antipas was one of the most pathetic figures in the New Testament. Four different Herods are mentioned in the New Testament, and they are all part of the same grotesque family tree. This is a bit confusing, but please bear with me because it matters for our story today. Herod Antipas, the one in our reading for today, was one of the sons of Herod the Great, a cruel despot who murdered his own wives and children to protect his throne. You may recall that Herod the Great is the one who massacred all male toddlers and infants in Bethlehem after the birth of Christ, according to Matthew 2.16.
After Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided among his offspring. Herod Antipas ended up with the crumb of Galilee while his nephew, Herod Agrippa I, ended up with the plum of Jerusalem. The nephew, Herod Agrippa I and his son Herod Agrippa II are the Herods we read about in the book of Acts. Herod Agrippa I had a sister, Herodias, who was married first to her uncle Philip, but eventually left him for Herod Antipas. Herodias ultimately proved to be just as disturbed as her grandfather, Herod the Great.
Matthew and Mark record that it was really Herodias who asked that John the Baptist’s head be served up on a platter at dinner party. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts, Herod Antipas comes off as a pathetic pushover, outwitted by his scheming wife. It just gets worse for Antipas - it seems that when he married Herodias, his first wife was just a little angry. Her father was king of the neighboring Arab kingdom of Nabatea, and his name was Aretas. Aretas went to war against Antipas, and managed to get the support of the Roman emperor. Poor old Antipas was defeated, and soon his own nephew (and brother-in-law), Herod Agrippa I, convinced the emperor to have Antipas banished to Gaul in western Europe. It was presumably a bitter exile for Antipas and his wife Herodias. Gaul was at the opposite end of the Roman Empire, and literally the end of the earth at that time.
Confused? So are many people. But here’s the point: no matter how you study it, this is one sick family. Herod Antipas’ life was a sad one. His family was cruel. His kingdom was a crumb. His leadership was a catastrophe. Herod Antipas was haunted by his family, his inadequacy, and most of all his unbridled passions.
But Herod was also haunted by the new message of God that was spreading like wildfire through his territory, first through the ministry of John the Baptist, and then through the ministry of Jesus. Their message of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!” both intrigued and threatened him.
From what we know, Herod Antipas was basically a pagan through and through. He may have had a partially Jewish bloodline, but the things of God were little more than tired traditions and religious relics to him. But then John the Baptist appeared and dared to challenged his marriage to Herodias as immoral and illegal. John didn’t kiss up to the king like everyone else did, so Herod had him locked up, then eventually, conveniently, killed. When Herod hears about Jesus, he thinks this is some sort of continuation of the ministry of John. Herod longed to meet Jesus and see Him do some parlor tricks. He had heard this Nazarene could heal the sick and even raise the dead. Herod finally had his chance on the night before Jesus was crucified. He asked Jesus to put on a show, but Jesus had none of it. In Luke 23.9 we read, Herod “questioned Him with many words, but He answered him nothing.”
Again, intrigued but also threatened, Herod is haunted by Jesus enough to want to hear and discuss Him, but refuses to believe and obey.
And so it is with many of us today. We are haunted enough by this figure, Jesus Christ, to want to hear what he says and to discuss what it means. But for many of us, the haunting goes no further. Herod was haunted enough by Jesus that he wanted to hear and discuss, but Herod was not haunted enough to believe.
For Herod, the price of belief was too high. If Herod was to believe, it would cost him a great deal. He would have to give up his pagan religion, unwind his incestuous marriage, cast off his wicked scheming, and surrender to the will of God. This was all too much for Herod Antipas. He knew what it would cost to believe, and the price was far more than he was willing to pay.
Herod Antipas did not realize the price of unbelief was even higher. He wanted to have things his way and to keep his fortune - though it was worth very little, but in that decision he lost his soul. He was clinging so desperately to the crumbs of the world that he lost heaven.
Only one ghost truly haunted Herod: the Holy Ghost. The Holy Spirit had not yet been poured out on all flesh - that happens at Pentecost at the beginning of Acts, after Jesus’ resurrection. But we do know that before Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was at work, speaking through the prophets, convicting hearts to turn to God.
I believe the Holy Ghost haunts some of us today. As the He did with Herod, He speaks through prophets, He challenges us with the Word of God, He stirs our curiosity. When we hear and discuss Him, He upends the status quo and perplexes us. In other words, He convicts us. He gives us direction and warning, just as He did with Herod. Some choose to heed the Spirit of the Lord God Almighty, while others do their best to ignore Him. But the conviction of sin that drives us to belief doesn’t go away. Like a hound after it’s quarry, the Holy Spirit is always in pursuit of you and me, always longing to capture our attention and to bring us to a place where we surrender our stubborn crumbs and cling tightly to Him.
Are you like Herod - happy to hear and discuss the things of God, but falling short when it comes to obeying them? You tell me you have accepted Jesus Christ and call yourself a Christian. That is good, but it is only the beginning. Have you surrendered your life and your will to the of the haunting of the Holy Spirit?
Let me put it another way: You tell me that you have invited the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart as a guest. That is good, but it is only the beginning. Have you given that wonderful guest the deed to your heart and your life, so that the Holy Spirit is no longer a guest in your life, but the master of it?
Or maybe this will make more sense: You confess with your tongue and believe in your heart - wonderful! You shall be saved. That is very good, but it is only the beginning. Do you also confess with your life and believe in full surrender to the guidance of the Holy Ghost?
Don’t be like Herod: willing to hear and discuss, but not to believe. It is one thing to have intellectual respect for God’s servant, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is quite another to make him the Lord of your life. Dialogue is not what you need, but a haunting - a full surrender to the Spirit of Christ. Curiosity about Jesus will keep you occupied for a very long time, but it is only belief in Jesus and surrender to the Holy Ghost that will break every chain that holds you down.
“Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.’ And his servant was healed that same hour.” (Matthew 8.13)
May we have faith to believe, faith to surrender completely to God, faith to be happily haunted by the grace of the Holy Ghost!