Ask a group of people to keep a secret, and you’re looking for trouble. More than likely, somebody will let it out. Especially if the secret is astonishing.
Simon Peter is the first disciple to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah. He’s the first to discover that this man he knows so well is the one anointed by God, the Messiah sent to deliver Israel from bondage. Peter says as much when Jesus asks him, point blank, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter’s answer marks him as the star student, and he receives his reward. Jesus promises to build his church upon the rock foundation of his faith. He gives Peter executive authority; promises to support him. Here Peter stands for the whole church. Jesus entrusts his mission to all who recognize him as the Messiah.
What a glorious development! Now should be the time to call in the media, get out the word, let everybody know that the Messiah has come and is setting up his organization. But it’s not time for press releases, for photo opportunities, for sound bites. Far from it.
Did you notice the ending of today’s gospel? Here it is again: Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” Nobody. Not a one. Mum’s the word. Can the publicity. Keep the secret.
Why is Jesus intent on keeping his being the Messiah a secret? Why not let it out? And now that he has admitted who he is, and the disciples all know it, does he really think that this secret can be kept? Won’t it travel from mouth to ear with the speed of novelty? The voices that ask, “Have you heard?” will multiply rapidly across the land.
It’s not just this once that Jesus wants his identity to stay a secret. Repeatedly, throughout the gospels he tries to keep from becoming the talk of whatever town he’s in. Yet when he performs such deeds as healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, when he fulfills the messianic job description, how are people expected to keep his identity to themselves? And why should they? What he does in one community after another is a publicist’s dream. The guy’s got the makings of a star. He’s going to be big, really big.
There’s a name for everything Jesus does in an effort to pass unrecognized for who he is. Students of the Bible call this the Messianic Secret. What’s behind it?
The most convincing explanation is that he does not want to be acknowledged as the Messiah outside his death and resurrection. Only in the light of those events can people begin to recognize what his being the Messiah really means.
If they hear he is the Messiah before he even gets to the cross, they are sure to misunderstand him.
Rather than being a messiah of sacrifice and triumph, they will see him as someone who has come to solve their problems, a Mr. Fix-It from on high.
Rather than recognize him as the one who calls them to their own death and resurrection, the crowds are likely to view him as a messiah sent to pamper their egos, to make their lives comfortable.
Jesus does not want his ministry to be seen in the wrong light. For this reason, he prefers that only his immediate circle know that he is the one God has sent. The opportunity will come later for them to announce that he is the Messiah. That opportunity will come once the crucifixion takes place and he returns from death.
The Messianic Secret helps us understand what goes on in the gospel story, why Jesus sometimes behaves in a way that seems incomprehensible. But the Messianic Secret is more than that, for it has a contemporary application.
People in his own time were ready to misunderstand Jesus because they wanted, indeed expected, a messiah of a different kind to be sent to them from God.
People today are also ready to misunderstand Jesus. We want, we expect, a messiah different from the one sent to us. We expect someone who saves us easily and asks from us nothing much at all. We want a Jesus who doesn’t die, or at least doesn’t expect us to follow him in doing so. While we hope for something easy, what the gospel offers us is a scandal.
What does this scandal involve?
First, we can know God best through this one human being, a single life where the Word becomes flesh. But this particularity is only the start of the scandal.
The gospel goes on to insist that we know him most completely not through the notable events of his life, but by his gruesome dying and his incomprehensible resurrection.
The scandal becomes even greater. His cross and triumph do not adequately reveal him until we become participants in them and accept them as our own. With Jesus, we must die and rise if he is to be our Messiah.
In our time, the Messianic Secret has changed. Once it meant not announcing Jesus as the promised one until his death and resurrection revealed him completely. Now it means not announcing Jesus without the cross and the empty tomb, not announcing him unless we are ready to die and rise together with him.
There are plenty of versions of Jesus abroad in the world today. Once again he has become a star; he is big, really big. Some of these versions are authentic; many of them are not.
What makes a version authentic is not a denominational or cultural label or any other marking likely to set us at ease. What makes a version of Jesus the real thing and not human fantasy is whether it invariably returns us to what is most important, what reveals divine love completely. We can welcome no Jesus without the cross. We can welcome no Jesus who remains dead. We will accept no easy messiah whose hands remain unwounded.
If we are to call ourselves Christians, members of his church, then we will accept the Messiah crucified and risen not only 2,000 years ago, but crucified and risen inside our own life as well. Then, and only then, are we dealing with the real Jesus.
Moreover, we will not keep the Messiah a secret. The world, the one where we spend our days, still waits for him. That world is dying to meet him – through us.