Who Do You Say That I Am?

The Messianic Secret

Introduction

In almost every superhero movie, there is a common scene: The hero finishes saving the day, besting the evil villain, and as the tension from the climactic battle turns into the calm resolution of the plotline, an innocent bystander yells to the hero, “who are you?” The hero looks over their shoulder, perhaps makes a cliché remark and says “I’m (insert hero name here)”.

Although the hero provides an answer, it is not the one the bystander wants. They want to know who the hero really is; they want to know their identity. 

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on his shoulders. His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty Hero, Father of the Coming Age, Prince of Peace”.

Isaiah 9:6

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but it is the glory of kings to search out a matter”

Proverbs 25:2

As 21st century readers of the Gospel, we have a privileged position of knowing that Jesus Christ is the true Son of God and the Messiah. In this article, I will argue that those in the 1st century (even those close to him) did not understand the fullness of Jesus’s identity because he showed discretion regarding it (and in some cases actively worked to prevent the truth from spreading). Many who were intimately close with Christ, including the disciples, did not understand who Jesus truly was until it was revealed to them at the Crucifixion or after the Resurrection (or for the disciples at Caesarea Philippi). Furthermore, most people were not spiritually “in tune” enough to identify Jesus for who he really was. Lastly, we will see how this knowledge is applicable for godly living and a blessing to Christians today.

The Hebraic Expectations For The Messiah

It would be naive to say that the Israelites did not expect a Messiah; quite the opposite is true, and even to this day they expect a coming Messiah (some even expect two of them). We know so deeply that Jesus of Nazareth was this Messiah and that the perfect actions of his life led to the forgiveness of sins once and for all (Heb. 10:10). With that said, it is easily understood and often concluded that the Israelites (both now and then) held an expectation for what the Messiah would look like. That expectation was primarily political. Isaiah 9:6 even identifies, regarding the Messiah, “the government will be on his shoulders”. In the first century, these expectations manifested as a desire for a king that would liberate Israel from Roman rule and oppression.  

As human beings, we can empathize with why 1st-century Israel would so desperately want a king Messiah. Consider that at the time of Christ, Jerusalem had been captured by Rome (63 BC) and the kingdom of Israel had not been united under one monarchy in over 1000 years. Consider the historical and theological importance and prosperous impact of King David and the natural tendency of humankind to desire a great leader that represents them. The Scriptures also emphasize the kingly nature of the Messiah.

“Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, that I will raise for David a righteous Branch, and he will reign as king and deal wisely, and will execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell safely; and this is his name by which he will be called:  ‘Yahweh our righteousness.’”

Jeremiah 23:5-6 

A shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.”

Isaiah 11:1

(Yahweh to David) “Your house and your kingdom will be made sure forever before you. Your throne will be established forever.

2 Samuel 7:16

In Luke 2:38, the prophetess Anna, in her old age, was at Jesus’s presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem. This verse implies that her expectation for Jesus’s life was for him to redeem Jerusalem from Rome and establish a united monarchy of Israel:

And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God, and to speak of him to all those who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke 2:38

This expectation was not exclusive to the average Israelite, it was also held by those incredibly close to Jesus. Even after Christ’s life, the disciples expected him to quickly establish a new kingdom.

Now when they had come together, they asked him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Acts 1:6

It is apparent that the political landscape of Israel combined with the political nature of some Messianic prophecies fostered an expectation for what the Messiah’s ministry would look like. I hope that from this section (by no means a comprehensive argument) your heart opens to consider that these circumstances may have changed the thoughts and actions of 1st-century Israelites. Later, we will see that these expectations acted as a shroud over the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth – “the shoot out of the stump of Jesse”

The Miracles of Jesus

Across the four Gospels, we learn of 41 miracles Jesus performed during his ministry (many of which are told in multiple Gospel accounts). Regarding these miracles, it is not uncommon for Christians who are unfamiliar with the Gospels to raise an eyebrow in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Within these Gospel accounts we see a recurring and peculiar interaction between Jesus and the recipients of his miracles: Jesus instructs them not to discuss with anyone the details of the miraculous events.

And he sternly warned him and immediately sent him away, and says to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go show yourself to the priest, and for your cleansing offer the things that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Mark 1:43-44 (After Jesus heals a leper)

And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and he said that something should be given her to eat.

Mark 5:43 (After Jesus raises a young girl from the dead)

We see the healing of the leper account repeated in Matthew 8:4 and Luke 5:14. The resurrection of the young girl is also recounted in Matthew 9 and Luke 8, although these accounts notably redact Jesus’s quote “no one should know of this”. 

After healing a mute and deaf man in Mark 7:36, he orders everyone to tell no one. The same record is shown in Matthew 9 without any mention of keeping the event a secret. 

Matthew is the only Gospel to share the healing of the two blind men (9:27-31). In verse 30, Jesus says “See that no one knows about this!” 

In these passages, it is apparent that Jesus did not desire the news of his powerful works to spread. We see Jesus plead and command the people not to tell others about these miraculous events (an incredibly difficult task – could you imagine trying not to tell anyone that you’ve been healed after a lifetime of sickness, blindness, or even after being resurrected?). The Gospel of Luke gives us an example of Christ not asking so nicely:

And demons also came out from many, crying out and saying, “You are the Son of God.” And he, subduing them, did not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.”

Luke 4:41 (Jesus healing many in Capernaum)

Notably, in this example, Jesus was not focused on the news spreading regarding his healings, but about the spreading of his identity as the Christ. Also unique to this record is that the threat presented by the demons in this miracle regarded not just the miraculous acts, but specifically the Christ-nature of Jesus. 

The moments immediately after these miracles were real “superhero” moments for Jesus, yet he withheld his identity. This is peculiar. The emphatic point of the four Gospels is that Jesus is the resurrected Lord, the Messiah, the King, the Son of God, the Son of David, etc. These Gospels were written to share that good news, yet when we read, we see the Messiah asking people not to spread the good news. It is not as if the Gospel writers did not know that Jesus was the Messiah. Matthew and Mark both identify Jesus as Christ in the first verse, John explains he is the Son of God in the opening prologue, and Luke points out that Mary’s child will sit on the throne of his father David (1:32). As readers, this should cause us to question the portrayed message of Christ, because Jesus’s actions do not appear to coincide with the purpose of the Gospels. 

“Who Do You Say That I Am?”

Earlier we alluded that the disciples did not know the fullness of who Jesus was, as the famous interaction at Caesarea Philippi shows. In Matthew 16:15 Jesus asked his disciples “But who so you say that I am?” The Scriptures do not say definitively, although it is likely that this question “sucked the air out of the room” and a long silence fell over the group. This question most assuredly burned within their hearts. Who exactly was this amazing man they were going around with? Perhaps the group was scared to answer out of the vain fear of making themselves look foolish (a practice I know all too well myself!). Then, breaking the silence, Peter said “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).  Imagine the rest of the disciples, like children at a spelling bee anxiously looking to the judge to see if their friend spelled the championship word correctly. 

Then Christ – The Judge – responded: “Blessed are you, Simon (Peter) Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 16:17) Jesus did not reveal his identity to the disciples until this moment, which is why there was no way for Peter to know other than revelation from the Father.

A few verses later Jesus returned to a more mysterious tone with the twelve. He concluded this interaction the same way that he concluded some of his miracles: “Then he ordered the disciples that they should not tell anyone that he was the Christ.” This should cause a pause for all of us to ask “why?” 

“Why?”

In many instances throughout his life, Jesus did not want people to know that he was the Messiah, but the unanswered question is “Why?” Perhaps we can gain clarity on this question by viewing the instances where Jesus broke the aforementioned protocol. In John 4, we see Christ’s interaction with the Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob. After Christ spoke deeply into her life, pointed out some of her sin, and made claims that contrasted with the religious practices she learned in Samaria, she responded with, “I know that the Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us everything.” How did Christ respond? “I who speak to you am he.” 

To fully understand this interaction and glean important learning regarding our topic, we look to the historical background of Samaria. After Assyria captured Samaria, they resettled the city with people of different pagan backgrounds (2 Kings 17). They remained there until Alexander the Great took the city (and entire region of Samaria) and displaced the Assyrian inhabitants, replacing them with people of Syro-Macedonian origins. After a few different exchanges of control, Pompey (a famous military general who was later defeated by Augustus Caesar) returned Samaria to its “original inhabitants”. These original inhabitants were most likely the pagans that Assyria placed there, but may also have been the Syro-Macedonians placed there by Alexander the Great. All of this is to say that Samaria was not a city that worshipped Yahweh from the time it was captured by the Assyrians to the time of Jesus. 

Another example where Jesus admitted that he was the Christ is during his trial. In Matthew 26:63-64 Jesus confirmed that he is the Christ and the Son of God. 

The circumstances of these two instances suggest political motivation behind the reservation to reveal Jesus’s identity as the Christ. This may sound odd or unbelievable at first, but recall our discussion on the Hebraic expectation for the Messiah. That bias rendered Israelites prone to misunderstanding Jesus of Nazareth. In his discussion on John 4, Thomas Schreiner states:

 “Since the Jews were prone to misunderstand Jesus, he did not directly proclaim that he was the Messiah. Indeed, he announces himself as the Messiah only to a Samaritan woman, for there was no potential in Samaria for a political movement that would crown Jesus as the Messiah.” 

It seems likely that if Jesus had announced himself as Messiah, the people would have latched onto him as a delivering king. With Roman rule in Israel, consider the response from Caesar if a usurper king from Nazareth created a movement. It is impossible to say for sure, but it seems safe to assume that Jesus’s ministry on Earth would have been cut short and not every prophecy would have been fulfilled. At the center of this claim is wisdom. We know that all wisdom proceeds from the Father (Proverbs 2:6) and we know that Jesus did all that the Father instructed him to do (John 5:19). It is evident that Jesus’s discretion was derived from the Father’s wisdom. 

It also makes good sense that Jesus would not have wanted news of some of his miracles spreading on the premise of ceremonial cleanliness. Before we presented Jesus’s healing of leper and resurrection of a dead girl. By touching both of these people, Jesus, by the letter of the Law, made himself ceremonially unclean. Had the Pharisees and Sadducees learned of this, Jesus would have had new, unnecessary challenges to face. Obviously, Jesus was not in violation of the Law by performing these healings (much like he was not violating the Law by healing on the Sabbath), but his discretion further demonstrates the application of wisdom in this discussion. 

Clearly, these are more physical arguments than spiritual arguments. There is a spiritual cause for Jesus’ discretion, but it is intertwined with the physical. The fullness of Jesus’s Messiahship can only be fully understood with reference to his crucifixion and resurrection. Surely, Jesus the Christ is much more than a common king. As we saw in Isaiah 9:6, the Messiah has many more titles and responsibilities than “king” and “healer”. Yes, Jesus is the King, Lord and Master, but also among his most important titles is “The Lamb of God”. The Christ’s role as a suffering servant was not hidden (Isaiah 53, Psalm 22), but only those who deeply knew the Scriptures were able to identify Jesus of Nazareth for who he truly was. 

Why It Matters

Although perhaps initially unapparent, this theme should serve as encouragement, direction, and inspiration to Christians.  

We should be encouraged that theological education or title has nothing to do with spiritual aptitude. After all, the Pharisees obviously were unable to see Jesus as the Messiah; meanwhile (ironically) blind Bartimaeus was shown favor by the Christ for his ability to perceive spiritual truth (Mark 10:46-52). Furthermore, a simple person such as Martha, Mary’s sister, could identify Christ in John 11:27: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One Coming into the world.”  True blindness is not in our eyes, but with our spiritual attentiveness. 

We should feel directed to search the Scriptures more deeply. It is a common criticism of ancient Israel to suggest that they were unable to see the Messiah directly in front of them because of their lack of knowledge and understanding. Perhaps we should feel sympathy with them, as there are many things to come in the future detailed in the Scriptures. How surprised will we be when they all come to pass? This theme, “The Messianic Secret,” should serve as a directive for Christians to study the Scriptures with consistency and humility. 

We should be inspired that we know the true answer to the question “Who do you say I am?” This truly is the eternal question for each and every person to walk the Earth, as by confessing Jesus as the true Lord and acknowledging his resurrection from the dead each person has access to eternal salvation (Romans 10:9-10). It is a blessing that we have such confidence in the identity of Jesus, and we should be inspired to share the answer to this question with our friends, family, and even total strangers. We should be inspired to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1). Praise God that “The Messianic Secret” is not a secret at all to us now. 

Although this “secret” is not hidden from us anymore, what other treasures are buried in the Scriptures for us to uncover? Recall Proverbs 25:2 (presented in the introduction of this article), this theme should serve as inspiration to “search matters out” as it is the glory of kings. 

In conclusion, we hope this article serves as a platform for all to review in their own heart the proposed explanation to Jesus’s discretion regarding his true identity during his earthly ministry: Jesus of Nazareth did not tell the Israelites that he was the Christ, thanks to wisdom from the Father, such that they would see him in the fullness of his role as Christ through the crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus is my Lord, King, Savior – and superhero – and I pray he is yours as well. Amen

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