A secret Messiah? (Matthew 8:4)

How do we announce Jesus’ kingship in a world where power is always oppressive?

Open Matthew 8:4.

Matthew 8:4 (my translation)
Jesus says to him, “See you tell no one, but head off to show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Why was the leper to tell no one about his healing? And if he was already cleansed, why send him off to offer a sacrifice for purification?

Jesus didn’t promote himself the way many politicians do. Jesus never announced himself as Messiah: he admitted it only when questioned. This is so odd that some scholars in the 1800s questioned if he even knew he was the Messiah. Others thought he knew he was the Messiah, but he wanted it kept secret. They called it the “Messianic secret” (Messiasgeheimnis in German). Based on this leper, a couple of other cases (9:30; 12:15), and Jesus’ teaching in parables, they claimed that the Gospel of Mark combined two streams of tradition in which Jesus knew and did not know he was the Messiah.  The theory is now discredited as “a clever theory, but utterly lacking in evidence” (G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1993, 179).

The scholars wouldn’t have wasted their time like that if they had a basic understanding of what the kingdom of God meant to Jesus and his contemporaries. Centuries before Jesus, the kingdom had disintegrated. Jesus was announcing its restoration. But he had a problem: how could he announce his kingship without forcing himself on his people the way evil rulers do? Pharaoh afflicted the Hebrews with his kingship. Nebuchadnezzar forced himself on Israel. In the time of Jesus’ grandparents, Caesar invaded Palestine enforcing his rule on them. That’s not how Jesus intended to become king. That’s why Jesus prohibited his followers using violence too (5:43-48).

Jesus didn’t demand people make him their king. Instead he worked to restore the kingdom, so the people themselves would recognize him as their heaven-appointed king (Messiah). There is no “Messianic secret.”

So why did he ask the leper to tell no one? The reason is given in the second half of the verse. Jesus wants the leper to go straight to the priest as a testimony to them. It’s not a secret: Jesus wants the authorities to hear about what he’s doing, about the heaven-sent king restoring his realm.

Some of us read the Bible in a very wooden manner. If you see a bus approaching, you might tell your child, “Don’t cross the road!” But there’s something wrong if the child interprets what you said to mean, “I’ll have to spend my entire life in this city block, since I mustn’t cross the road.” Jesus didn’t tell the guy he could never say anything to anyone about his healing. Just play that forward. Say the guy follows Jesus’ instructions and goes to the priest. Then he comes back to visit his family. They say, “But you’re not allowed in here; you’ll defile us all!” So the guy is supposed to say, “Oh dear. Jesus told me never to tell anyone, so I guess I can’t visit my family. I’ll have to go back to live in the leper colony.” Seriously?

No, Jesus was setting his immediate agenda. The guy is jumping out of his revitalized skin to talk to his friends and hug his family, but he’ll never get to the priest if he does that. He’s to go straight to Jerusalem (the place where sacrifices were offered) for the cleaning ceremony that will last a whole week. Then he can return to Galilee, certified by the priest so his family and friends can take him in.

There’s no Messianic secret. Jesus was already famous in Galilee for restoring his people (4:22-25). He restored this man and commissioned him to bear testimony to the highest authorities of the nation. The rulers in Jerusalem needed to know God was at work restoring his people through the rising Messiah.

Unfortunately, the messenger ignored the king’s instructions. He couldn’t wait. Mark 1:45 implies that the Jerusalem authorities never got the message, while Jesus’ popularity went off the scale in Galilee.

Jesus’ messiahship is no secret. But we still face the same problem Jesus did: how to announce his kingship to a distrustful world where people have been crushed by power and fear submitting to any ruler. How do we do that?

That question leads us beyond ourselves to the gospel of the kingdom. You want to tell friends and family what Jesus has done for you? Of course you do. But there’s more. The priority is to declare the restorative work of the king to the powers that be, those who think they’re in control. That’s the story of Acts too (e.g. Paul in Acts 9:15; 17:7; 25:13 – 26:32; 28:31).

Speaking truth to power begins with stories of actual people set free from the things that prevent us living together as the human community. We get to tell the story, particularly when the powers that be see themselves as being in control of such matters. In case you hadn’t noticed, this whole chapter (Matthew 8) is focused on Jesus’ authority. It’s no secret, but it requires creative communication.

What others are saying

George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 180:

The messianic consciousness of Jesus must be distinguished from the messianic revelation. The Gospels unquestionably portray Jesus as possessing a messianic consciousness. His infrequent public affirmations of this fact and his emphasis upon secrecy must be understood against the setting of the popular expectations of the Messiah and Jesus’ self-revelation of a radically different messianic function. His messianic self-revelation therefore involves the re-education of his disciples to a new interpretation of the messianic mission as it was actually embodied in his person.

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 308:

The immediately following instruction to go and show the priest that he was cured would suggest that this is not so much a blanket prohibition as a matter of priorities: first show the priest, and so gain official sanction for re-entering “clean” society; to tell others before the priest had been informed and had ratified the man’s new status would have been pointless as well as contrary to established law. Once that was done, we may assume that others would be told, since a former “leper” could hardly be expected to reappear as a healthy member of society without people needing to know how it had happened. The visit to the priest and the sacrifices would take a long time: the ritual covers eight days (Lev 14:8–10) and the offerings would have to be made in the temple, necessitating a journey to Jerusalem and back before the man could rejoin his Galilean society.

Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2017), 24–25:

William Wrede, in a study published in 1901 (The Messianic Secret, English translation from the German original in 1971), contended that the early Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah only after Easter …

However, if Jesus was not regarded as Messiah by Peter and the other disciples (8:29), if there was nothing messianic about Jesus’ ministry, and if Jesus did not himself declare that he was the Messiah (14:61–62), there is no explanation for why he was executed as ‘the king of the Jews’ (15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26; cf. Matt. 27:11, 29, 37; Luke 23:3, 37–38; John 18:33, 39; 19:3, 12, 14, 21). Furthermore, if Jesus’ ministry was not messianic and if Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah, there is no explanation for why the early Christians would have been interested in transforming their unmessianic master into the Messiah after Easter. Most scholars today do not believe that Wrede’s hypothesis explains either the life of Jesus or Mark’s Gospel.

[Update 2023-02-28: Schnabel quotation added]

[previous: The leper and the king]

[next: Faith that amazed Jesus]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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