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Why did Jesus tell the disciples not to tell anyone about him?

November 21, 2012

Why did Jesus sometimes tell people not to tell others about who he was, or about how he healed them? This passage from Mark 8:27-30 (NIV) looks almost anti-evangelistic:

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.

This hard-to-understand aspect of Jesus’ ministry is often called the “messianic secret.” I.e., Jesus wanted his messiah-ness kept secret (at times). As the Handbook on Biblical Criticism (4th ed.) puts it, the “Messianic Secret refers to a discernible phenomenon in the Gospels, most especially in the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus explicitly conceals his messianic character and power until the closing period of his ministry” (124).

The messianic secret is not an attempt on the part of Jesus to keep people from knowing, believing in, and following him. But Jesus did seem to be careful throughout the Gospel of Mark to keep his identity as divine Son of God/Messiah from spreading. There are at least two reasons for this that I can see.

First, though Jesus is identified early in the Gospels as a miraculous healer and exorcist, early in his ministry is not yet time for his identity to be revealed. The fullness of time has simply not come. Perhaps Jesus had certain ministry objectives that needed to be accomplished before his crucifixion? He knew, either way, that as his fame spread, he would be tried and crucified for it. But this could only happen in due time.

Second, Jesus may have been cautious that a misunderstanding of the title “Messiah” would result if people were to say things like, “Here is the Messiah!” He was not the military insurrectionist and ruler than many Jews were expecting (I wrote more about this here), and he wanted to prevent title confusion, I suspect. So he often warned the evil spirits and those who received healing (and, as above, even the disciples!) not to tell anyone about him.

Even with those explanations in view, I still find the “messianic secret” difficult to understand. But perhaps this is because I am like Peter, in Mark 8:33, who all too often has in mind the things “of humanity” rather than “of God.” The messianic secret remains, at least to me, something of a mystery.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Vive LeRoy permalink
    November 22, 2012 7:37 pm

    I think that Jesus understands human nature, and knew the best way to spread a secret is to ask someone to keep it.

  2. December 7, 2012 9:45 am

    I think there is evidence for both of your reasons. I’m not sure it’s necessary to pick one or the other. I do think there is evidence regarding the 1st reason that Jesus was waiting to fully teach the 12 disciples before revealing himself so that they could carry on his teachings after his death (and resurrection). Nice post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. December 8, 2012 3:52 am

    Another thought is to link to the text after feeding the multitude – john 6:15. There is, like you said, an element of ‘incomplete business’. And if he were to proclaim himself openly, the kingdom would have been put off track by those that would have perceived Jesus kingdom as a worldly one and acted upon that…..

    But if he were to remain a ‘good teacher’ and ‘miracle worker’ – with the element of doubt as to Him being the Messiah, then He could finish his work at the right time……

    Just a thought!

    • December 8, 2012 6:32 am

      A good thought–and I think part of Jesus’ work was to shape and re-calibrate folks expectations/understandings of just who the “Messiah” was…

  4. thalindrome3 permalink
    December 8, 2012 11:19 am

    What is perplexing is why Jesus is so secretive in the gospel of Mark, but so open in the gospel of John. In Mark, consistently orders the disciples/demons/healed people not to reveal his identity. Many of his miracles he performs off in a corner. However, in John he is always bold about his identity and his mission, clearly presenting his pre-existence, his special relationship to the Father, and flirts with revealing his godhood to the point of nearly causing the crowds to stone him. These two images (Mark and John) are almost incompatible.

  5. December 8, 2012 1:11 pm

    An angle I had not considered when I first posted. Great point–it makes the whole thing more fascinating/befuddling!

  6. December 10, 2012 6:20 am

    I was giving a reason for this to my Sunday School students yesterday. We were studying Matthew 12.
    The reason that I gave them for Jesus not wanting His messianic identity to be revealed at that time- was that “Jesus was being merciful”!
    That Jesus was not wanting to “break off the battered reeds”.
    Not wanting to “put out the smoldering wicks”.
    That He was not wanting to quarrel with those Pharisees (v.14) “UNTIL HE LEADS JUSTICE TO VICTORY” (v.20).
    Not give the Pharisees a sign (v.38) until the greatest sign of Jonah was given (v.39).
    A sign they could not contend with.

    • December 10, 2012 6:23 am

      Thanks for your comment, Ron–it really does seem like timing (as you mention) has a lot to do with it.

  7. Richard Mutali permalink
    January 21, 2014 12:19 pm

    1.He did not want conflicts with the pharisees & sadducees.
    2. He wanted people to believe in Him by Faith.
    3. He wanted to accomplish his work before being killed since the pharisees could be up in arms accusing him of blasphemy & making his work impossible as there could be a revolt against him. Amen.

  8. Fred permalink
    January 14, 2015 5:52 am

    I have asked this question numerous times. Today god answered it for me. If you tell a person some thing secret they will ultimately tell their inner circle. However if you tell them not to tell anyone it triggers something in the human psyche that makes us tell even more people. True story Christ was indeed the son of the most high. He knows our thoughts even before we think them…….

  9. June 9, 2015 4:01 pm

    What is a layperson/non-Bible scholar to do??

    Here is our dilemma: Every Christian Old Testament Bible scholar, apologist, pastor, and priest on the planet says that the Old Testament prophesies the birth and death of Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish Messiah (ben David). However, every (non-messianic) Jewish “Old Testament” scholar and rabbi adamantly states that there is not one single prophecy in the Hebrew Bible about Jesus.

    So who are we poor ignorant saps to believe?

    In lieu of spending the next 10 years becoming a fluent Hebrew-speaking Old Testament scholar yourself, I would suggest using some good ol’ common sense. Who is more likely to be correct:

    1.) Jewish sages and rabbis who have spent their entire lives immersed in Jewish culture, the Jewish Faith, the Hebrew language, and the Hebrew Bible—for the last 2,000 years…or… 2.) seminary graduates from Christian Bible colleges in Dallas, Texas and Lynchburg, Virginia?

    Sorry, Christian scholars, but using good ol’ common sense, I have to go with the Jewish scholars. And Jewish scholars say that Christian translators deliberately mistranslated and distorted the Hebrew Bible to say things in the Christian Bible that is never said in the original Hebrew—for the purpose of inventing prophesies into which they could “shoehorn” Jesus!

    I recommend that every Christian read the bombshell book, “Twenty-Six Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus” by orthodox Jewish author, Asher Norman. You will be blown away by the evidence that this Jewish author presents that confirms why Jews have said the following for the last two thousand years: “Jesus of Nazareth was NOT the Messiah.”

    • June 9, 2015 4:12 pm

      It’s hard to know where to begin in response to your comment, which I see is also its own stand-alone blog post on another blog. More criteria need to be delineated than “good ol’ common sense” (whatever that means).

      As you’ll notice by my deep appreciation for books by Jewish Publication Society (inter alia) on this blog, I have great respect for Jewish scholarship, which has benefited be immensely. I don’t accept, though, the bifurcation of Jewish scholarship and Christian scholarship, since the latter can and does build on and root itself in the former, so you’re kind of setting up a straw person when you compare Dallas to Jerusalem.

  10. caroline grech bonnici permalink
    September 13, 2015 6:43 am

    I think the gospel of Mark tends to focus on the political climate at the time and puts Jesus in this context thus Mark emphasised that he told the disciples not to say anything about Him.However John, as Jesus’ friend, tends to focus more on the human side of Jesus and the mercy shown to all those who suffer!

    • September 14, 2015 2:32 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Caroline–it is interesting to follow the different emphases each of the Gospel writers has.

  11. September 13, 2015 10:50 am

    WHO are we to believe ? GOD of course
    He alone is trust worthy – we are not.

    Without the SAVING work of CHRIST ALONE – a person is to be pitied.

    So much of who, what Christ was and did is Supernatural. To deny that is to deny Christ.
    To be in a state of condemnation and without hope.

    Everything else matters not. Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. then what?

    OR!!
    Lets go with the
    HEBREW OT
    SEPTUAGINT
    GNT

    Our English translations ESV NASB etc are just that translations – not originals
    We need to study the originals and get what truly is being said.

    We have so many good/bad translations – its no wonder people are confused.

    Maybe we cant even trust Abram? We can’t really trust even ourselves.
    We need to be Bereans and study – to go with the LXX OT GNT studies.

    By reading Abrams site – Is he leading us astray? Just another sap?
    Does he use the Bible the (‘Massage’ – Message- which is a bad trans.)
    or is he wanting to be true to God’s Word and teach as best he can what is right
    and true to scripture. Using good translations or more so GNT/LXX etc.

    Then! lets go with men/women that are true to the WORD in the NT/OT fields.
    Dan Wallace for greek – Benjamin Sax for Jewish studies – endless list.

    SO!
    WHAT is the intention of the Jewish Scholars that say the Xtians are mistranslating
    and who are they ?? share your info so we can see if they are right or wrong.
    Blanket statements don’t serve a purpose.

    That’s why I don’t like it when some scholar or whomever says this guys writings are really
    bad and teach falsehood. But then they dont tell us who it is –
    For all we know I might be reading it and need to stop and warn others.

    (My Brother) is in a CULT because he decided this cult was right, anything else is wrong.

    Lets also remember how Gods people in the OT stood the test of time. From the get go!
    NOT very well, in so many ways –
    What did they do when they received Gods 10 commandments or recommendations?

    They didn’t take long to go their own way – right up to today. US included – but they more so.
    HIS people – all thru the OT we see how it all went – Abraham, Moses! Aaron, David, Solomon etc etc. Badly – are we any better.

    2000 yrs of what the Jews have been and done shows what kind of faith they really had.
    The OT surely shows what happened.
    How many laws were added to God’s Word by the Pharisees. False teaching etc.
    Did they do and teach what was right and good for the people?
    Obviously not – just by what we see written about them in OT and NT

    Jesus certainly went after them with both barrels – they never got it.

    IT IS a serious matter to say there are NO Christophanies in the OT.
    To Deny Jesus is to pay the eternal price – death without Christ. Hell
    Now days even Christians deny Hell, eternal punishment. Trinity etc.

    SO there are good, bad teachings everywhere.

    There are plenty of Scholars out there that are serious about God’s Word.
    WTS West sure is – and many others –
    There are bad ones as well that decide what their deal is and poo poo everyone else.

    Going with Dispensationalists is trouble in many ways – OT, NT/cf: Sermon on the Mount!

    Or should we go with the likes of Spawn/Hawkings/Rob Bell/ etc.
    or Joel Osteen –
    Look at the following he gets and he is totally off base. Should we follow him? No!!

    Baptists are going into Mormonism big time. Believing a LIE! why?

    I really don’t care what someone believes – what I care about is what Gods Word says and does one believe that and follow it ?
    God’s Word or the highway – choose you this day who you will serve. Self or Christ.

    DO this and YOU will Live
    Don’t do it and you will die. Salvation by the Law. Who can?

    Either its Christ or its you – if its you then what do we need a Savior for – really

    The Bible is about Christ from beginning to end.
    Its not about us ‘ITS NOT’ a field manual for holy living –

    So to think that 2000 years of Jewish scholars, sages and teaching is the only right way to go; is, by what we see in scripture, what still goes on in Jewish culture up to today; is to be misled.
    Jewish or Xtian we just never get it or learn now or from history.

    Romans makes it quite clear what man is all about;
    and WHO its all about.

    Grace ALONE
    Thru Faith ALONE
    On account of CHRIST ALONE

    Its Him or nothing!

  12. Brian Perpiglia permalink
    November 8, 2015 5:17 pm

    Jesus came to earth ( became incarnate) for the sole purpose to die. This is his wonderful gift of grace. Without Him paying the price for our sins noone would enter the Kingdom.

    The spreading of the Word to the people was left for the apostles as their Great Commission after they received the Holy spirit.

    • November 9, 2015 11:01 am

      Thanks for your comment–I think Jesus himself was eager to start in on that work (the spreading of his Kingdom), too, though–not just leaving it to the apostles for after his death and resurrection. Though that certainly is our task now.

  13. Ron permalink
    March 9, 2016 12:28 am

    What happened to those that did not listen to Jesus ? Were they sinning ?w

Trackbacks

  1. Recommended reading for December 7th, 2012. | Near Emmaus
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