Continuing our study of Mark’s account of the death of John the Baptist, we note that it reveals Herod Antipas as a man with some discernment who was yet unprepared to follow his convictions. As Mark 6:21–29 reveals, Antipas eventually gave in to his wife Herodias’ demands that he kill John (see v. 19). Yet, Antipas had John beheaded only reluctantly due to his ability to discern John’s character and calling.
Mark 6:19b–20 indicates that Herodias was initially unable to convince her husband to kill John because Antipas feared the prophet. It was clear to Antipas that John “was a righteous and holy man.” Despite Herod’s many sins and depraved character, he still had enough discernment to see that John was a man sent by God. He knew that it would be wrong to have John put to death, and that it would incur divine judgment, so he protected him from Herodias. Herod was willing to have John put in prison, but he would not be readily convinced to have the prophet executed. Herod might have been confused by the actions and preaching of John, but he found him compelling and understood that he was not worthy of execution.
Herod’s recognition of John as a righteous man helps us better understand the biblical doctrine we usually label “total depravity.” Total depravity tells us that every part of human beings, including our minds, our hearts, and our wills, is tainted by sin (Rom. 3:9–18). But total depravity does not mean people are wholly destitute of the ability to recognize holiness or that we are as depraved as we could be. As sinful as we are, all of us could sin more gravely than we do already. On this side of eternity, God does not allow fallen people to reach the utter depths of evil. This does not make sinners less worthy of hell, but it means we still can recognize truth when we see it. In fact, the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1:18–32 that sinners are under God’s wrath precisely because they have known the goodness and holiness of our Creator and yet willfully reject Him.
Though we are fallen, we retain the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). We are created to recognize the holiness of God even though we suppress the knowledge of our Creator. But this recognition does us no good unless we love the holiness we see. Herod Antipas illustrates that as well, for he finally handed John over to death even though he knew better (Mark 6:21–29). Knowing the truth is not enough; God must change our hearts so that we love the truth.