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August 24, 2011 / Daniel

The Messianic Secret? Jesus, the Suffering King

Christ before Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy, 1881

Why does Jesus hide his identity in the gospel of Mark?

The so-called “Messianic Secret” has long puzzled Bible scholars.  In 1901,  William Wrede argued that the historical Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah.  This was an invention of the early church.   Based on this presupposition, Wrede concluded that Mark developed a “messianic secret” motif to cover for Jesus.   It was a fabrication designed to explain why nobody remembered Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah.  Mark wanted people to think that Jesus did claim to be the Messiah.  He just told them to keep it a secret.  But in reality Jesus never made any such claims.

Today most Bible scholars find Wrede’s theory implausible.  It’s far-fetched.  Why would Jesus’ followers insist that the crucified Jesus was the Messiah if he never claimed to have such authority?  But even though Wrede’s theory was wacky, his discovery of the secrecy motif in Mark’s gospel is quite helpful.

Why does Jesus keep his true identity under wraps? The real reason lies in Jesus’ perspective on the kingdom of God.  Jesus is the incognito Son of Man.   He hides his identity in order to rework Jewish expectations about the Messiah and his kingdom.

This is clear in Mark 8:27-38.  Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  Peter answers, “You are the Christ.”  However, when Jesus begins to talk about how the Messiah must suffer and die on a cross, Peter rebukes Jesus.  Why?  Because Jesus’ words contradict Peter’s definition of the word  “Messiah.”

The disciples misunderstand the nature of the Messiah and his kingdom.   The disciples believed that the Messiah would be a conquering king. But Jesus tells the disciples that the Messiah must first be a suffering servant (Mark 10:45).    There can be no kingdom without the cross.  The crucifixion makes the resurrection possible.

It’s important to realize that most of the occurrences of the secrecy motif concern the displays of Jesus’ kingdom power.   When Jesus heals the sick, he tells them to tell no one.  When he casts out a demon, he commands the demon not to reveal his identity.  Suppose Jesus did not command the recipients of these miracles to keep silent.   This would have confirmed their mistaken notions about the Messiah.

Mark 9:9 is significant.  In the aftermath of the transfiguration, Jesus tells the disciples “to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (9:9).   After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the role of the Messiah would be clear to them.   Then it would be obvious that the Messiah must be a suffering servant.  However, until that time, they must keep it quiet.  Otherwise they might tell someone about the glorification of Jesus and it would have confirmed their bad ideas about the Messiah.

Mark 14:61-62 and 15:2 are two key exceptions to the secrecy motif.  During his trials before the high priest and Pilate, Jesus admits that he indeed is the “Messiah.”   However, this time Jesus’ words are not vulnerable to misunderstanding.  As the king of the Jews, Jesus will die for his people.  His suffering will proceed his glory.  The kingdom comes by way of the cross.

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