The Messianic Secret
From Gospel Translations
“Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (v. 20).
- Matthew 16:13–23
“Son of Man” is the title that Jesus used more frequently of Himself than any other, but “Christ,” or “Messiah,” is the title the New Testament authors use most often for our Lord. This raises an important question for us. If Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, why did He not regularly use the title for Himself?
Things become more complicated when we see in today’s passage that on some occasions during His earthly ministry, Jesus forbade His disciples from telling others He was the Christ (Matt. 16:20). Some liberal scholars say this fact, plus the relative absence of the title “Christ” on Jesus’ lips in comparison to the New Testament authors, indicate that Jesus did not see Himself as the Messiah. Instead, they suggest the idea that Jesus is the Messiah was imposed on the historical Jesus by the church.
This contention is easy to refute. It may be true that Jesus did not often use the title “Christ” of Himself, but it is also true that Jesus never denied that He was the Messiah. We see in verses 17–19 of today’s passage, for example, that Jesus agreed with Peter’s confession of Him as the Christ. After all, why would Jesus have pronounced blessings on His disciple if Peter was wrong about His identity?
Nevertheless, Jesus was clearly guarded about who would know His messianic office, and He revealed His identity plainly only to a select few (see Mark 3:12; 5:43; 8:30; Luke 8:56; 9:21; John 4:25–26). Understanding the political realities of first-century Palestine helps us understand why our Lord kept this so-called “Messianic Secret.” In that day, most of the nation was looking for a Messiah who would be a political revolutionary, a king who would release the nation from Roman domination. Their preference for Barabbas over Jesus demonstrates this reality, for Barabbas was a political zealot who was in jail for rebelling against Rome (Mark 15:6–15).
The Old Testament predicted a conquering, kingly Messiah, but it also said the Messiah must first suffer and die for His people (Isa. 53; Amos 9:11–12). Had Jesus declared His messianic office plainly, He would have stoked the fire of rebellion, encouraging the Roman authorities to kill Him before the appointed time. Rome would have been made sovereign over the time of His death, which could not be, because Jesus chose when to lay down His life (Luke 22:47–53; John 10:17).
That Jesus did not act in the precise way that His contemporaries expected only indicates that God is not bound to conform to our false expectations of Him. The only expectations we may rightly have of Him are those defined by His Word. But the entire canon of Scripture, taken together, is our source for these expectations, not just the parts of the Word that we like best. Let us be careful to define our view of God by all of Scripture.
Passages for Further Study
2 Samuel 7:14–15
Isaiah 6:8–10; 53