About two thousand years ago in a town some six miles south of Jerusalem a baby was born in a stable. His earthly parents called him Jesus, the name given to them by an angel. I would like to look at what He said and the message He wanted proclaimed, as the first three gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke, reveal it.
The message of the Bible, including these three books, is that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God. The very first verse in Mark proclaims Jesus as the Son of God and the first chapters of Matthew and Luke tell of the virgin birth, something without parallel in human history. Knowing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and keeping in mind Jesus’ teachings that we should let our light shine before men, we would expect Jesus to proclaim to all that He is the Messiah, the Son of God. Word made flesh. What we find in the first three gospels, however, is something quite different.
Throughout Matthew, Luke, and especially Mark, Jesus commands demons, disciples and people healed not to tell anyone that He is the Messiah. Although I may have missed some, I know at least sixteen texts where Jesus silenced those wanting to proclaim that He is the Messiah (Matthew 8:4, 12:16, 16:20. 17:9, 9:30; Mark 1:23-25, 1:34, 1:43-44, 3:11-12, 4:10-12, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26, 8:30; Luke 5:14. 9:21). Why would Jesus institute a Messianic secret?
The first possible explanation is that Jesus feared the Pharisees. Jesus did not fear for his life, since this is evident in giving His life on the cross to save us from our sins. Since the time had not come for Jesus to give His life, maybe He was trying to smooth things out with the Pharisees. In Mark 1:45, for example, after Jesus cleansed a leper, the leper went abroad telling what Jesus had done for him. and Jesus was forced to move from the city to a desert place. In John 5:16, the Apostle tells us that after Jesus healed the invalid at the Pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath, the Jews sought to slay Him. Under these conditions, it seems likely that Jesus did not want the Pharisees to prevent the gospel message from going abroad.
The explanation, however, seems unlikely. First, from the very beginning, at His baptism (Matthew 3:7) Jesus did not cower before the Pharisees, but called them a “generation of vipers.” Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus give in to the Pharisees for the sake of peace. Second, saying that Jesus did not proclaim the gospel to further the Kingdom is contradictory. Never in history has silence of the Good News of Jesus Christ served the purpose of the Kingdom. This was true in the time of the prophets, it is true today, it will be true in the future and it certainly was true in the time of Jesus.
Another possible explanation is that Jesus used “reverse psychology,” i.e., He commanded people and demons not to reveal that He was the Messiah, knowing that this mandate would further the spread of His name. This was what happened when Jesus healed the deaf and mute man. Jesus “charged them that they should tell me no man; but the more He charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it.”
This too seems an unlikely explanation. God does not command us to do one thing with the hope that we do something else. God’s commands are right and should be followed—to say otherwise would contradict the attributes of God.
An explanation made popular in this century by critics is that Jesus Himself did not believe, or at least understand, that He was the Messiah. They popularized this Messianic secret because Jesus Himself did not explicitly claim to be the Messiah until the end of the Gospels.
This explanation goes against clear facts. Jesus could perform miracles, and if He expected others to see this as a sign of His divinity, He Himself would recognize that as a sign. Also, it is certain that His parents told him of His miraculous birth.
A fourth explanation is that Jesus did not want anyone to know that He was the Messiah or at least until after His resurrection. This seems to make sense: Jesus commanded people not to tell that He was the Messiah because he did not want anyone to know. In Caesarea Philippi, when Peter made his great confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus “commanded them to tell no man that thing; saying, the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain and be raised the third day.” Luke 9:21b-22. When Jesus, Peter, James, and John ascended the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus charged them with a similar command. “Jesus charged them saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of Man be risen again from the dead” (Matthew 17:9).
Although this may be the most likely and clear explanation, it is not without its problems. First, had Jesus’ intent been to hide the fact that He was the Messiah, He did a poor job of it. In Mark 6, Jesus performs the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle that comes between other miracles in which He commands His “Messianic Secret” not to be revealed. He performed this miracle in the public and all could see the power of Christ.
Second, Jesus publicly declared Himself to be the Messiah before the resurrection. During His questioning by the high priest, Caiphas asked Jesus point blank, “I adjure thee by the living God that thou tellest whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus answered, “Thou hast said.” Had Jesus wanted no one to know that He was the Christ or at least until after His resurrection, why did He Himself publicly reveal His identity?
Third, to get a proper understanding of the situation, we need to consider the purpose of miracles, for it is often at the time of a miracle that Jesus commands people not to reveal that He is the Christ. One of the purposes of miracles was to exhibit the fact that Jesus was sent from God. The miracles were given as a testimony and as a support of Jesus’ divinity. It is contradictory to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God through a miracle, but then squelch that testimony. Jesus Himself expected the people to recognize his divinity through His miracles, and accused “the cities wherein most of His mighty works were done, because they repented not” (Matthew 11:20).
Whatever the reason that Jesus commanded people and demons not to reveal that He was the Christ, one thing is certain: Those who saw Christ and His miracles through the spectacles of faith given to them by the Holy Spirit recognized Him as the Messiah, while others stumbled in their blindness. Matthew tells us that since Capernaum saw the works of Jesus but did not repent, judgment will be greater for them than for Sodom. Jesus said concerning parables in Mark 4:11 -12, “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the Kingdom of God; but to them that are without, all these things are done in parables; that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted and their sins forgiven them.”
This is true today as well. Many can plainly see that Jesus is the Son of God but do not believe, and many hear the Word of God but remain with hardened hearts. For those hearts that the Holy Spirit renews, there is no “Messianic Secret.” Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.