Messianic Secret: Why Did Jesus Quiet People Down About Him?
In what has been called the “Messianic Secret,” Jesus told both demons and people not to tell what they knew about him. Sometimes it was during an exorcism, after a healing, or even after his disciples recognized that he was the Messiah. Why did Jesus want to keep people quiet?
Did Jesus want people to know about him or not? Well, that’s a no brainer: Jesus final words in the Gospel of Matthew are for his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus telling them to preach “in his name to all nations” (24:47). Jesus obviously wanted the message about him to get out to, well, everyone.
That’s what makes it so strange when we find Jesus in the Gospels wanting people not to talk about him. Here are some examples of what some have called the “Messianic Secret”:
- “He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” (Mark 1:34b NIV)
- Jesus sent [the former leper] away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone.” (Mark 1:43-44a NIV; see Luke 5:14)
- He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up….He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this. (Mark 5:41-42a NIV, 43a)
- “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret.” (Mark 7:24b NIV)
- “At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone.” (Mark 7:35-36a NIV)
- “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:29b-30; see Matt. 16:20 NIV)
- “They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were.” (Mark 9:30 NIV)
Messianic Secret: “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.”
So, why was Jesus hushing people up about him? It makes sense that he wouldn’t want publicity from demons (“he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was”). But why would he keep his own disciples quiet about who he was? Why, after a miracle, would Jesus tell the healed person to not tell anyone?
Two Main Views About Jesus
We’ll get back to the main question soon, but before moving ahead, it’s helpful to point out there are two main views about Jesus. There are people who see Jesus as “one of those”—and then fill-in-the-blank with prophets, holy men, enlightened masters, etc. They see Jesus as a pretty amazing person, but as one of many. In our day, it’s common to see Jesus as just one of the many great spiritual teachers throughout history.
Then there are the people who see Jesus as being completely in his own category. Throughout the Bible, Jesus is described as God in human flesh (Col. 1:19; Matt. 1:23), the long-awaited Jewish Messiah (John 4:25), and the Savior of the world (John 4:42). As such, Jesus is so much more than “one of those” prophets, spiritual teachers, or religious leaders; he’s in a tier all by himself. In the words of the apostle John, he’s God’s “one and only Son” (John 1:14, 18; 3:16; 1 John 4:9).
Why Keep People Quiet? A Skeptic’s Explanation
So, back to our main question: Why did Jesus tell people to be quiet about him? As one of the people who see Jesus as just “one of those,” a German theologian named William Wrede (1859-1906) put together a theory that went like this: A group of second-century Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah. But as they looked at the early manuscripts on Jesus’ life, they realized that these early documents didn’t have any info on Jesus being the Messiah. So, they took the manuscripts and added parts in which made Jesus into the Messiah. Plus, in order to explain why the earliest Christians didn’t know that Jesus was the Messiah, they also added in parts where Jesus told people not to tell people he was the Messiah. The book in which Wrede developed this theory is called Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, published in English as The Messianic Secret.
Messianic Secret: “Why did Jesus tell people to be quiet about him?”
My friend Winfried Corduan, also a German theologian, has pointed out that Wrede’s theory on the Messianic Secret is built on assumptions which don’t match the evidence. Here are four assumptions that must be true if we’re going to take Wrede’s theory seriously:
- Jesus didn’t believe he was the Messiah.
- The earliest Christians didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah.
- An unknown redactor reversed the entire meaning of section after section of the Gospels.
- These reversals (and not the originals) were picked up by Luke and Matthew as they wrote their Gospels.
Is it true that, the further back we go, we find a Jesus and early disciples that didn’t actually believe he was the Messiah? As James Edwards, scholar of the Gospel of Mark, points out, “A nonmessanic stratum of the Gospel has yet to be discovered.” New Testament theologian Richard Bauckham reviews the evidence and concludes, “The earliest Christology was already in nuce [in a nutshell] the highest Christology.” What he means is that the earliest views about Jesus we find already have a very high view of Jesus’ identity.
“The earliest views about Jesus we find already have a very high view of Jesus’ identity.”
We also see this early high view of Jesus from the “creedal” statements in the New Testament, sayings in the early church which predate the actual writings. For example, these include 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 which describes Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, and Romans 1:3-4 which says that Jesus was “appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection.”
Why Keep People Quiet? A Believer’s Explanation
There are a lot of us who believe that the Gospels tell us the truth about Jesus’ actions and identity. The four Gospels were written in the first century by people who would be in a position to know what really happened. If you’d like to see why I think this way, for starters I’d encourage you to check out “Is the New Testament Reliable? An Answer in 11 Numbers.”
So, why, if Jesus really was the Messiah, would he regularly tell people to keep the news quiet? Why the “Messianic Secret”? Here’s a passage in Mark that gives us at least one clue:
Jesus sent [the former leper] away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone.”…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. (Mark 1:43-44a, 45)
Messianic Secret: “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.”
Why did Jesus want the man to keep quiet? It’s because, once the publicity started, Jesus had more trouble defining his messiahship and setting his own agenda. The area got so abuzz with excited people that Jesus became more limited in doing what he had come to do. Luke 4:42-44 gives us a snapshot of Jesus’ agenda versus the average person’s:
“At daybreak, Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them. But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’ And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” (Luke 4:42-44 NIV)
Jesus loved these people and had compassion for them. But they had their own ideas of what Jesus was there to do, and they kept pressing in on him with their agendas.
Messianic Secret: “They had their own ideas of what Jesus was there to do, and they kept pressing in on him with their agendas.”
And there were more than the zealous majorities to think about; there were also the jealous authorities. The average person thought that the Messiah would be a military deliverer. If it looked more and more like the Jesus movement was fueled by unchecked anti-Roman militarism, Rome would likely come down on such a movement with swift vengeance—when military salvation wasn’t even Jesus’ plan.
Jesus was intent on setting his own agenda, which would turn out to be far bigger, and take far greater strategy and precision, than what anyone at the time was anticipating. As Isaiah 49:6 said about the Messiah,
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends to earth” (Is. 49:6 NIV).
The Silence Was Temporary
Throughout his ministry, Jesus was very aware of what he called “the hour” or “my hour.” For example, he tried to back out of doing a miracle because, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). When the hour had finally come (John 13:1; 17:1), we discover that Jesus had been talking about his coming death and resurrection.
Then after his hour came, and Jesus died and rose from the dead, Jesus gave his disciples the green light to now tell everybody about him. This is when his disciples get the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20).
Reversing the Messianic Secret: “After his hour came, and Jesus died and rose from the dead, Jesus gave his disciples the green light to now tell everybody about him.”
Empowering them at this juncture to tell the news to everybody was Jesus’ plan all along, as we see Jesus explain to his disciples after his Transfiguration:
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mark 9:9 NIV)
It was at the cross and resurrection that Jesus gave the definitive definition for what the Messiah had come to do. The enemy had tried to steer Jesus away from his preordained path (Matt. 4:1-10), and so had well-meaning people (John 6:14-15; Matt. 16:22). Yet Jesus stayed the course and fulfilled the divine agenda. With that in place, it was time to tell the world.
What Jesus Keeping People Quiet Means for Us Today
This side of Jesus’ Great Commission, how do we honor Jesus’ regular requests for people to stay quiet? What do these less familiar parts of the Gospels teach us about Jesus?
Jesus is as popular today as he ever was—and in much the same ways. People back then heard about Jesus and saw the fulfillment of their personal dreams. Here was someone who would meet their needs and fight their battles. It’s true that Jesus does meet our greatest needs (e.g., for unconditional love, forgiveness, salvation, community, etc.), and he does fight our toughest battles (e.g., against sin, death, and the devil). But just as back then, a ton of people today paint Jesus into their own agendas. He endorses their politics. He favors their group. He condemns their enemies.
“The ‘Messianic Secret’ teaches us that, in light of our impulse to conscript Jesus into our own causes, it’s better to quiet this impulse and let Jesus set his own agenda by his death, resurrection, and present reign.”
The “Messianic Secret” teaches us that, in light of our impulse to conscript Jesus into our own causes, it’s better to quiet this impulse and let Jesus set his own agenda by his death, resurrection, and present reign. It would be counterproductive and tragic for us to lather crowds into Jesus-related enthusiasm without actually introducing them to the real Jesus and inviting them into his agenda for their lives.
Jesus didn’t come to attract an enthusiastic crowd that would paint him into their cause. The prospect of crowds chanting, “Jesus! Jesus!” made him want to tell the people he healed, “Hey, keep this under wraps. Please.”
When it came to crowds, Jesus would actually divide them—into those who faithfully followed and those who bitterly rejected him (“Crucify! Crucify!”). Some got better as a result of knowing Jesus; others became more entrenched in rebellion and disbelief. The old man Simeon had prophesied over Jesus the infant, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against” (Luke 2:34b NIV). We each need to ask, not whether we can get excited about a kindhearted miracle worker (that tells us nothing about ourselves), but whether God on a cross calcifies our hard hearts or softens them.
“We each need to ask, not whether we can get excited about a kindhearted miracle worker (that tells us nothing about ourselves), but whether God on a cross calcifies our hard hearts or softens them.”
So, let’s let Jesus define himself and accomplish his work. Getting people excited about a Jesus who amens their decisions, endorses their candidates, and promises their version of happiness ends up just generating a lot of noise. His agenda is quieter, and it feels more like crucifixion than a carnival. But the end result is Jesus, the real one, formed in us.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, Pillar New Testament Commentary, Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 64.
 Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 235.