The Reason for the “Messianic Secret”

The Gospel reading yesterday contained one of those incidents where Jesus heals someone, and then instructs them not to tell anyone. Theologian William Wrede drew attention to this pattern about a hundred years ago, and named it the “Messianic Secret.” It has puzzled bible scholars for a very long time. For one thing, Jesus occasionally does the opposite, and tells the person to spread the word. What’s going on?

I think there is a simple and practical reason that Jesus does this. I’ll bet it makes sense to you as soon as you hear it.

But first, here’s an anecdote from Francis MacNutt, a leading figure in the Catholic Charismatic Movement. He was known to have a gift of healing, and people would travel long distances to ask him to pray over themselves or a loved one.

MacNutt said that once he had been a speaker at a busy conference, and had been giving talks and praying over individuals for a couple of days. Then there came a free afternoon in the schedule, and he badly needed a break. He decided a round of tennis would help, so he went to his room to change and came out carrying his tennis racquet—and saw a long line of people going down the hall, waiting to catch him when he left his room and get him to pray for them.

I believe that’s what the “Messianic Secret” is all about. The timeless God can hear and answer a billion prayers simultaneously, but the incarnate God must live in time, and has to manage it. Jesus came to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God, but his healings caused such a sensation that he was surrounded by crowds almost everywhere he went.

This is key: the instruction to keep something secret always relates to a healing. He wants to minimize the numbers of people who are coming to him for a miracle alone, because his primary calling is to preach.

This need to manage crowds is most evident in the Gospel of Mark. Who was Mark? The earliest traditions say that he is the St. John Mark who accompanied St. Paul in the Book of Acts. He became a companion of St. Peter, and wrote down his talks and sermons, compiling Jesus’ sayings and the incidents of his life. The apologist Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) calls the Gospel of St. Mark “the memoirs of Peter.”

And consistent background theme in these “memoirs” is, “You wouldn’t believe how many people there were!” The atmosphere of this Gospel has a strong flavor of first-hand observation. The speaker was personally jostled, crowded, and not allowed to eat a meal in peace. He saw Jesus flee to the mountains for a little peace and quiet. He saw Jesus need to get into a boat to speak to the crowd.

Jesus’ first miracle, in Mark, concerns a man with an unclean spirit. Afterward the people “were all amazed…and at once his fame spread everywhere, throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” (Mark 1:27-28)

Jesus then goes to Peter and Andrew’s house, and heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. Mark says that, by sundown, a large crowd had gathered outside the house: “That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered together about the door.” (Mark 1:32-33)

Seeking solitude, Jesus slipped out of the house long before dawn, and went to a “desolate place” to pray. But Peter and the other disciples “searched for him and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’” (Mark 1:35-36)

Everyone is looking for you. Think of how overwhelming this must have been for Peter. He was just a fisherman in the village of Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He probably led a quiet life. And now, all of a sudden, the whole town is gathered around his door.

Jesus had no intention of going back to the crowds in Capernaum. He said, “Let us go on to the next town, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (Mark 1:35-38)

Jesus came out to preach, and that requires gathering some kind of a crowd—but there is a tipping point where you can no longer preach, because due to the crowd you can’t be seen or heard.

And these might actually not be people who have come to hear preaching. What they earnestly seek is healing. They want to get as close to Jesus as they can. This impedes his preaching, his first mission.

Jesus “went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.” (Mark 1:39) When a leper is healed, Jesus “sternly charged him and sent him away at once and said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone.’” Peter stresses that Jesus “sternly charged” the man not to tell anyone. They are becoming aware of the need for crowd control.

“But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer enter a town, but was out in the country, and people came to him from every quarter.” (Mark 1:43-45)

The problems attendant to dealing with crowds are already becoming a strong theme in this gospel, and we’re still in chapter 1. You can hear in it a distinct first-person recollection—the narrator’s astonishment at how swiftly news spread and large the crowds became. There will also be natural frustration at how the quantities of people impeded their daily life.

The next chapter of Mark begins, “And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.” (Mark 2:1-11) Once again people crowd around the house and block the door. “Many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door.”

Here is where the story comes in about the people who can’t bring their paralytic friend into the house, so they go up on the roof and dismantle it. “When they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him.”

I picture Jesus and Peter feeling a little shower of twigs and mud plaster, and looking up see daylight coming through. They are tearing Peter’s roof apart—friends, neighbors, customers, people he’s known his whole life, are ready to tear his house apart to get to Jesus. Their determination is more than a little frightening. And at this point Jesus has been publically preaching for only a few days.

Jesus “went out again beside the sea; and all the crowd gathered about him, and he taught them.” (Mark 2:13)

“As [Levi] reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.” (Mark 2:15)

“Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed; also from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon a great multitude, hearing all that he did, came to him.” (Mark 3:7-8)

“And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they should crush him; for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.” (Mark 3:9-10)

“Unclean spirits…fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’ And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.” (Mark 3:9-10)

Jesus was able to get away briefly with a smaller number of disciples. “He went up on the mountain, and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him, and he appointed twelve.” (Mark 3:13-14).

Then they came down to Peter’s home, “and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.” (Mark 3:20)

I’m going at a snail’s pace through the first chapters of Mark, but you can already see how constantly St. Peter refers to the crowds. I think this is a good mark of an eyewitness account.

First-person stories include references to things that aren’t necessary to the story; they are just things the person happened to notice or were thinking about at the time. An example in this Gospel is that St. Mark alone records that, in the midst of the storm, Jesus was asleep in the boat “with his head on a pillow.” That pillow is irrelevant, and got cut from the story in the other Gospels. But you can see Peter right there in the boat, thinking “There he is, fast asleep, his head on a pillow like he’s home in bed!”

All these references to crowds resemble the way someone would describe their camping trip if it had rained the whole time. A third-person storyteller would mention the rain briefly and then concentrate on where they went and what they saw and did. But a first-person account would keep coming back to the incessant rain: “And it was still raining!” “It rained the whole time!” “The rain made the paths so muddy!” “Everything got soaking wet!” To the person who actually went through it, the rain tinges every memory of the trip, like putting a colored gel over a landscape. A person who wasn’t there might think “Well, that’s irrelevant” and cut it out, but to the person who experienced it, it will never stop being an insistent part of the story.

We’re up to Mark 4. Once again Jesus gets into a boat so he can address the crowd: “Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.” (Mark 4:1) Picture all the crowd on the shore, staring out at him, and Jesus able to address them because he’s in a boat. They are trying to think creatively about crowd management and how to ensure that preaching will still go on.

Jesus then decided to cross the Sea of Galilee and go to the Roman cities there, a place where he would be unknown. “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.” (Mark 5:1) Jesus heals a demoniac, and the people of the town ask him to leave! This is a very different response than he had in Capernaum. “And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their neighborhood.” (Mark 5:17)

There follows one of those instances where Jesus does not keep the “Messianic Secret,” but actually instructs the man to tell everyone. “As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, ‘Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis [Roman cities across the Jordan River] how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.”

Since Jesus is going back to Galilee, the healed man can spread the word as much as he wants. Jesus is not necessarily trying to keep his healing work secret; he is trying to control how the word gets out, to manage the crowds that inevitably arise.

Jesus returned to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and here Mark tells us that it was a big crowd twice in just a few verses: “And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him; and he was beside the sea.” The ruler of the synagogue, Jairus, comes and asks Jesus to heal his daughter, and “a great crowd followed him and thronged about him.” (Mark 5:24)

This is when a woman comes and touches the edge of his garment, and is healed. In two verses there are two more references to the crowd “pressing about” Jesus, and a rather snappish answer from “the disciples” (St. Luke attributes the comeback to St Peter himself):

“And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said,‘Who touched my garments?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say,‘Who touched me?’” (Mark 5: 30-31).

After the woman is healed, Jesus deliberately sheds most of the crowd: “Heallowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James.” (Mark 5:37) When he arrives at Jairus’s house there is another crowd gathered there, mourning the child. “He put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was.” When their daughter was restored to life, Jesus “Strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.”

In Chapter 6, “Because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them,‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them.” (Mark 6:31-34). Jesus’ response is an indicator of his character. A natural response would be intense aggravation—after deliberately trying to get away for a rest, to be thwarted by a crowd would annoy anyone. But Jesus feels, instead, compassion. What follows is the feeding of the 5,000, and I think the effort to make people sit down in groups of 50 and 100 is probably another attempt at crowd management.

Afterward, “when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret, and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, immediately the people recognized him, and ran about the whole neighborhood and began to bring sick people on their pallets to any place where they heard he was.” (Mark 6: 53-56) This has become predictable.

Early in Chapter 7 Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees. There’s another example of the opposite of as secret; Jesus calls the crowd together, because there’s something he wants to say: “And he called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand’.” (Mark 7:14) Crowds (of reasonable size) are good and even necessary when you have a message to preach. Crowds seeking healing are harder to control.

“And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house, and would not have any one know it; yet he could not be hid.” (Mark 7:24) “He could not be hid”—what a beautiful phrase.

When they bring him a deaf-mute, Mark says three times in a row that Jesus attempted to keep this healing secret. “Jesus took him aside, privately, away from the crowd.” (Mark 7:33) Took him aside, privately, away from the crowd. But it did no good. “Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them, the more widely they proclaimed it.” (Mark 7:36)

There’s also the episode in the Gospel of John where Jesus knows “the people intended to come by force and make him king, [so he] withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” (John 6:15).

The next day: ”The crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.” (John 6:22-24).

You get the feeling that Jesus is like a hunted animal. He is determined to fulfill his mission of preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God, but huge crowds of people seeking healing keep impeding him.

I’ll stop there, since the examples go on and on. But you see my point; the “Messianic Secret” had to do with getting a handle on the huge crowds attracted by Jesus’ healing miracles. That’s a good thing—to see with what earnest faith they sought him out, to see what compassion they had on their friends and family members who needed healing, and to see Jesus himself take time to heal them. But if the enthusiasm about healings wasn’t controlled, it would render his most important mission—preaching the Gospel—impossible. I believe this explains the mystery of the “Messianic Secret.”

Frederica Matthewes-Green

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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