Jesus Christ: The Messianic Secret

Have you ever wondered why Jesus never preached Jesus? He went about doing good, the Bible tells us. He healed the sick and cast out demons and taught large crowds around the countryside and smaller groups in the synagogues.

But he carefully avoided declaring that he was the Messiah. In fact, he went out of his way to keep his identity as Messiah a secret. We read for example, in Mark 1:40-45,

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, If you are willing, you can make me clean.

Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. I am willing, he said. Be clean!

Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.

Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

We are not going to talk about begging Jesus on our knees for healing. I suppose many people have taken this passage as an example of what to do when we sincerely desire to be healed of an affliction.

But just about as many people have been disappointed to find that Jesus did not respond to them in the same way as he responded to this leper. So there is no sense in our pretending that if we go to Jesus on our knees and beg for healing that we will assuredly receive it.

We believe that Jesus has given us the greatest healing of all—healing from our sins—but he does not always heal our physical ailments. We trust him to do what is right and good for us and to stand with us in our suffering, but experience has taught us that we do not always receive exactly what we ask for.

We are also not going to talk about offering the sacrifices that Moses commanded for cleansing. Much has been said and written about the differences between the old and the new biblical covenants, so there is no need to cover that again now.

What we are going to talk about in this message is the question of why Jesus did not want the healed leper to tell anyone about his healing. Jesus gave the healed leper the strong warning, See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But the former leper did not obey Jesus. He went straight out and freely spread the news.

As a result of this man’s disobedience, Mark tells us Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. And even in the lonely places, people came to him from all over.

So, what do you think?

Should we applaud the former leper, or should we lament his disobedience to Jesus’ strong warning? I am reluctant to try to answer that question, except to say that I have found that it is smarter to obey Jesus than not to obey Jesus.

But in today’s world, we have the view that telling people about Jesus by whatever means we can muster is the most important activity in which we can be involved. So when we read that the healed leper went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news, we tend to get excited and wish we could have that same overwhelming joy and evangelistic fervor. Maybe that’s why some Christians like to magnify healings and other blessings into advertisements and publicity opportunities for the gospel.

But Jesus didn’t want that man to go out and spread the news. Jesus wanted his identity to remain secret. In verse 34, we read that Jesus would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Similarly, in Mark 8:27, Jesus asks the disciples, Who do people say I am? Peter replied in verse 30, You are the Messiah. Good answer. But Jesus responded not by saying, Good job, Peter, but by warning the disciples not to tell anyone about him. Let’s read the passage in Mark 8, beginning in verse 27:

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, Who do people say I am?

They replied, Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.

But what about you? he asked. Who do you say I am?

Peter answered, You are the Messiah.

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

That is the very opposite of what we might have expected. We want everyone to know about Jesus. But Jesus did not want everyone to know about him. What’s going on? We get a clue in the next few verses of Mark 8:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. Get behind me, Satan! he said. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.

Do you see what’s going on? Let’s think about it. Why would Jesus not want his disciples to tell anyone about him? Here was the visible, flesh and blood, miracle-working Jesus walking and preaching all over the country. What better time for his followers to lead people to him and tell them who he was?

Unlike today, when we have to tell people to trust in Jesus in faith, they had Jesus in the flesh. But Jesus was clear, strong, and even stern in saying, Don’t tell anyone who I am. Let’s go back to Mark 8 and read it again.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. Get behind me, Satan! he said. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.

Do you see the difference between what Peter thought the Messiah would be and what Jesus knew the Messiah was? Peter was so certain about his perception of the Messiah that he stopped Jesus and rebuked him for all that crazy talk about rejection and being killed and rising on the third day. Peter must have thought Jesus had been in the sun too long. Everybody knew what the Messiah would do, and here’s Jesus ranting about getting killed.

So Jesus took the moment to call things as they were. He rebuked Peter. Get behind me, Satan! he told Peter. The word translated Satan means enemy or adversary, and it must have stung Peter. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns, Jesus went on.

If even the disciples, and even Peter among the disciples, didn’t know what to expect of the Messiah, how much less would the general public in Judea know what to expect of him? Let’s move to Mark 11, and get a close up of what the public perception of Messiahship was.

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, Why are you doing this?’ say, The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’

They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, What are you doing, untying that colt?

They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

This was what people expected of the Messiah: A triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This was fulfillment of prophecy, and it fit with their perceptions of what the Messiah would do just before he took over the leadership of the nation and led his armies to victory over the occupying Roman armies.

But they were wrong.

When people finally heard that Jesus was the Messiah, they were overjoyed to receive the news.

The problem lay in definitions and expectations. What the people expected the Messiah to be and to do was quite different from what Jesus the Messiah actually came to be and to do. The people expected a king who would rally the people, and with the blessing of God, lead them to victory over their Roman conquerors and restore the kingdom of David in all its glory.

They did not understand what the Messiah was all about. Their idea was different from God’s idea. When they heard the term Messiah, they misunderstood it, because they had been conditioned to expect something else.

With this in mind, we begin to see why Jesus did not want his disciples or those he healed to spread the news about him. It was not the right time for the people to hear. The right time for the news to spread was after Jesus had been executed and raised from the dead. Only then could the real purpose of God in sending Messiah be understood for what it was.

In our world today, there are many concepts about God. If you talk to 10 people on the street, you will likely find 10 different opinions about who God is, what God is like, how God deals with humans and what God expects of us. Surveys by George Barna and others have shown that even among Christians, ideas about who Jesus is, what grace is and how it works, sin, forgiveness, faith, repentance, obedience, and so on, vary widely.

If there is so much variety among believers, how much more do ideas about Jesus vary among non-Christians? Suppose, for example, I approach a stranger sitting on a park bench and ask him if he knows Jesus. Suppose the stranger’s idea of Jesus is that of a long-haired, wispy-looking weakling. Suppose his mother used to tell him that Jesus didn’t like it when he played cards, or ran and played on Sunday. Suppose his most frequent exposure to the word Jesus was on a dirty cardboard “Do you know Jesus” placard glued in the parking garage of his apartment building? What would likely be the first impression this man would have of me and my question? Would that promote the gospel?

Suppose, on the other hand, I met the man, and over a period of time developed a relationship with him. Suppose we became friends. Suppose the way I treated this friend usually reflected the love of God. Suppose he eventually found out, as friends usually do, that I am a Christian. Would that tend to change his flawed perspective on Jesus and Christianity to a more accurate one?

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 points out that there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven. Among these are a time to plant and a time to harvest and a time to be quiet and a time to speak up. The time to spread the news about Jesus came after his resurrection, not during his ministry.

Until his resurrection, there could not begin to be sufficient understanding of who he really was. Even the disciples were consistently ignorant about Jesus’ full identity and mission until after the resurrection. The same principle applies today—people are often not ready to hear and comprehend who Jesus is until they experience his resurrection life in his people, the church.

The call to discipleship is not an individual call to a personal faith apart from the life of the body of Christ. It is only in the context of the body of Christ, the church, that we experience the life of union and communion, of oneness, that we have in Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

Let’s read 1 Peter 2:12: “Be careful how you live among your unbelieving neighbors. Even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will believe and give honor to God when he comes to judge the world.” You probably noticed that Peter did not say, Press your unbelieving neighbors for a decision. Peter’s focus is on the honorable behavior of believers.

Why? Because it is through our honorable behavior, that is, our love, that our unbelieving neighbors see Jesus in action. Peter says this will result in their belief at a time when God chooses. The words, when he comes to judge the world, is a reference to God’s timing as opposed to our timing.

The foundation, the root, the core, of telling people about Jesus is not a set of facts. It is love. Not just a feeling, but real love that displays itself in how we live with one another. Most important of all, Peter says in 1 Peter 4:8, is that we continue to show deep love for each other.

In a similar vein, Paul wrote in Galatians 6:10, “Whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone, especially to our Christian brothers and sisters.” In other words, Peter’s and Paul’s instruction on spreading the good news centers on the witness of love, not on a well-rehearsed speech. It is our lives in him and his in us that show people who Jesus really is.

Instead, Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if you are asked about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. When a person asks about our Christian hope because they have experienced Jesus in us, then that person has a more accurate perspective of Jesus. They ask because the Spirit prompts them, and the catalyst the Spirit uses is the love at work in the body of Christ.

And our conversation, Paul said in Colossians 4:6, “should be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.”

People listen to friends. People listen to those who have proven they care. People listen when the relationship is real, not artificial. People are not our personal gospel projects. People are people, valued by God at the highest level. Relationships must never be thought of as a means to an end, even if the end is to present the gospel. Relationships are the end and love is the means. The gospel is the truth of God’s faithful, loving relationship with humanity in which Jesus, as God, brings God to us and as human, brings humanity to God. In Jesus, there is perfect union and communion between God and humanity.

Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:10: “God has given each of you a gift from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another, so that God’s generosity can flow through you.” God has richly blessed us with active parts in his work of building up the body of Christ, the church, and reaching out with the gospel to nonbelievers. At the heart of that work is love. Where love is, there is Christ. There is no love apart from Christ. God is love, John wrote.

That’s what the disciples and the crowds didn’t understand about the Messiah. They thought the Messiah would be a warrior champion to throw off the Roman yoke and restore Israel’s glory. But the Messiah was the Father’s gift of undying, indestructible, self-sacrificial love.

The gospel is the truth, and the truth is a Person, Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh, love in the flesh. To share the gospel is to share him, which is to love. He can only be understood in relationship, not in a list of facts. The Messiah did not merely bring good news; he is the good news.

Author: J. Michael Feazell


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