The Messianic Secret and the Son of Man

11 Jan 2016

The Messianic Secret and the Son of Man

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When I was an associate pastor, I remember “Grandma” Audrey, an eighty-year-old woman, asking me why Jesus required His disciples to keep His true identity a secret (e.g., Mark 8:29-30). I was thankful that she had been reading her Scripture in such a way that questions were naturally generated. I trust that you likewise have faced this question. So did Jesus, the Light of the World, seek to put it under the bushel? (I feel compelled to say, No!)

The answer to this question is complex, and so the responses here may not exclude others. Nevertheless, some answers are clearly illegitimate. A gospel critic at the turn of the twentieth century, William Wrede, argued that Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah.[1] After Jesus’ death, the early church sought to connect Jesus to Old Testament prophecies, making Him a Messiah figure. That Jesus never claimed to be Messiah was clearly a problem for the church. To overcome this obstacle, the early church fashioned a messianic secret whereby Jesus suppressed statements of His true identity. Consequently, the only reason for the Messianic secret in the gospels is to mask the historical inaccuracy that Jesus’ claimed to be the Messiah.

Before giving some inspiration-compatible reasons for Jesus’ “messianic secret,” let’s recognize that Jesus’ Messianic identity is not always presented in a masked way. This is clear in John’s gospel where Jesus makes explicit His Messianic identity to the woman at the well (John 4:25-26). Further, even the synoptics portray Jesus as openly declaring His Messianic identity (Matthew 21:7; Luke 4:21). Any answer, therefore, that always makes Jesus’ identity a secret fails to follow the biblical data.

Here we will provide two answers to why Jesus would limit the spread of His messianic identity. First, an open declaration would have changed the entire chronological landscape of Jesus’ death. Let me explain. Remember Jesus’ Nazareth sermon? This sermon certainly occurred late in Jesus’ ministry, but Luke, as a capable and intentional writer, situated the sermon early in his gospel because it foreshadowed the response Jesus would receive from the Israelites. By placing this sermon first, Luke summarizes some of the main points of his gospel. In the sermon, Jesus read from a passage in Isaiah that was widely interpreted to refer to the coming Messiah, boldly declaring that it referred to Himself. However, when Jesus indicated the limitations of His Messianic task (being limited to those with faith) and the scope of His Messianic task (the gospel will go to the Gentiles), the people sought to kill Him. The point of importance for us is the response of the audience. Having heard that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, their expectations were aroused, and when their expectations were not met, they sought to kill Jesus (4:29).

So, to repeat, Jesus, in declaring His Messianic identity, aroused expectations that when not met resulted in threats to His life. It is clear that Jesus had a perfect timetable for when He would die. This plan, wrought in eternity, did not lack in specificity. The millennium, decade, year, day, hour, and moment were planned with precision. Jesus knew the vitriolic responses that would come from His claims and actions, and He planned the open revelation of His identity to be progressively revealed until the appointed time had come. This explains why Jesus was willing to enter Jerusalem on a donkey. This is the only time Jesus is recorded to have ridden an animal, and so the meaning is quite clearly to fulfill the Messianic prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. In sum, an open declaration of His Messianic identity would have prematurely hastened the path to the cross, preventing much of Jesus’ teaching and other ministry.

A second answer also pivots on the expectation of Jesus’ audience. While it is no longer popular to suggest that Messianic expectation included a conquering hero who would free the Israelites from the bondage of the Romans, there is much historically and biblically to support this position. As such, declaring oneself Messiah had significant political overtones. Certainly Messianic texts do speak of Jesus’ kingship, yet the progress of revelation revealed that there would be two aspects to the Messiah’s activity. In fact, when Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus’ response was designed to correct Peter’s false expectations (Mark 8:29-31). Instead of conquering as a King, Jesus would suffer as a Servant. The request to keep His Messianic identity a secret, then, had less to do with masking His identity than with allowing the messianic identity to be defined by Jesus’ actions. Too much misunderstanding would result from a simple declaration.

I think this second point explains another strange element of the Gospels; namely, why doesn’t the early church pick up Jesus’ favorite designation of Himself, the Son of Man? I think the answer lies in the masked nature of the self-identification. On the surface, the title might simply refer to a son of a man—a rather innocuous title. On the other hand, its use in Daniel 7 to refer to the Son of Man who will come with the clouds of heaven to receive His kingdom is not innocuous. Nevertheless, the data we have for Jesus’ historical context suggests that “the Son of Man” was not used widely as a designation concerning the Messiah. But did Jesus use this title in reference to Daniel 7? Consider Jesus’ response to the question by the high priest concerning whether Jesus was the Messiah: “I am, and You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62, NIV). The early church’s use of Son of Man is no longer needed after the death of Jesus, since no one could then misunderstand His Messianic purpose to be primarily political. After this point, the church’s favorite designation of Jesus is Christ, that is, the Messiah.

In sum, it appears that Jesus’ “Messianic Secret” was historically intentional. It prevented misunderstanding and allowed a longer timetable for Jesus’ ministry. Jesus never denied His identity; rather, He carefully guarded this identity, preventing others from interpreting it falsely. In this way, the actions of Jesus—not the expectations of others—provide the definition of the Messiah’s activity in His first advent.

[1] William Wrede, The Messianic Secret, trans. James C. G. Grieg (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1971).