Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed king of Judea, was known for his cruelty. The most well-known example is his massacre of all boys age two and younger in Bethlehem near the time of Jesus’ birth (Matt. 2:16–18). This tyrannical king also had quite the twisted family tree. His son, Herod Antipas, married Herodias, who was Herod the Great’s granddaughter and therefore Antipas’ niece. Before Herodias was married to Herod Antipas, however, she was married to her other uncle, Herod Philip, who ruled one-fourth of the kingdom Herod the Great left behind at his death. Herod Antipas divorced his first wife, an Arabian princess, in order to marry Herodias, who, in hope of social advancement, left Philip for Antipas, who also ruled one-fourth of Herod the Great’s former kingdom. For one brother to take his living brother’s wife as his own was against the Jewish law (Lev. 18:16; 20:21), and John the Baptist was not afraid to preach against the sins of Antipas and Herodias.
We learn in today’s passage that John landed in prison and was eventually beheaded because of his condemnation of Herod Antipas’ sins (Mark 6:17–19a; see vv. 14–16). This happened at the instigation of Herodias, who wanted John dead. As we will see in our study of Mark 6:19b–20, Antipas was initially hesitant to have John killed, but Herodias finally prevailed upon him. In any case, in John we find an example of the cost one may be forced to pay for upholding the Word of God. Countless believers since John’s day have been martyred for their faith, so let us be encouraged to follow their model of faithfulness should devotion to Christ ever require it.
John’s ministry with respect to Herod Antipas also has much to say about the role of the preacher. John Calvin comments on this episode that “John has thus, by his example, furnished an undoubted rule for pious teachers, not to wink at the faults of princes, so as to purchase their favor at this price, how advantageous soever that favor might appear to be to the public interests.” Preachers and teachers of God’s Word are not to let powerful people who are involved in gross sin off the hook. Our Creator’s law does not permit rulers and other wielders of influence to break His law with impunity. Preachers are duty-bound to be a prophetic witness against the sins of national leaders, calling them to repentance as quickly as they would implore those who are powerless to forsake their sin.