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Miracles and the Messianic Secret

Oct 6, 2020

Why did Jesus often tell those he healed to remain silent?

It is interesting that on a number of occasions after Jesus performed a mighty deed, he commanded those who benefited to not tell anyone. This is especially the case in Mark’s gospel. Why did Jesus do this? If the miracles of Jesus were mainly meant to elicit faith, or to help make converts, one would have expected him to do the opposite: urge these folks to tell as many other people as possible.

Several reasons can be discussed. One is what is known as the “messianic secret.” Since the 1901 book by that title by William Wrede appeared, there has been much discussion of this aspect as found in the gospels, again, especially in Mark. The concealment of the messianic identity of Jesus is a larger aspect of the requests to not publicise his miracles.

As to Wrede’s thesis, there has been a lot of debate about this, and not all have embraced it. A look at the various commentaries reveals this. One quote will suffice here – back in 1976 Hugh Anderson said this: “All in all Wrede’s comprehensive theory of Mark’s theological intention is to be judged too narrow and too rigid. The messianic secret is a feature of the Gospel. But it does not embrace the whole purpose of the Evangelist. Hence other scholars have sought to modify or extend it.”

Another major part of the answer to my initial question has to do with the nature of miracles and their main purpose. It seems they were mostly about confirming the man and his message. They were not ends in themselves. They pointed to the nature of salvation and the long-awaited messiah.

The connection between miracles and salvation can be seen in many places. For example, the story of the healing of the paralytic in Matthew. 9:1-8 shows the inseparable link between forgiveness of sins and the man’s healing. Commenting on this passage, Craig Keener notes:

“Although Jesus’ miracles teach about his power to heal physically, these signs are especially meant to turn attention to the kingdom of God (6:33; 9:12). Similarly, in the Book of Acts signs and wonders constitute the primary method of drawing attention to the claims of the gospel, but it is the gospel itself that is paramount (e.g., Acts 14:3).”

The same can be said about Mark’s gospel. Miracles are primarily pointers, and they point to a person. As James Edwards comments: “For Mark the significance of Jesus cannot be fully conveyed by what he does, but only by who he is. One can be amazed by a miracle, but one can only trust and believe a person.”

Moreover, Jesus did not want to be sidetracked from the main purpose of the incarnation: the cross. Jewish expectations at the time of what the messiah would be like were quite different from his. They were looking for a military conqueror, a political liberator. Although this was a proper expectation based on much Old Testament teaching, it was not the whole package.

That the coming messiah should first suffer, then rule, was not part of most Jewish expectations. But the idea of a suffering messiah was there nonetheless (as in the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 52:13-53:12). What the Jews were eagerly looking forward to from the day of the Lord was God’s vindication: God’s salvation of his people and judgement on their enemies.

The coming messiah was looked on as a great deliverer or judge, in the tradition of Moses, Samson or Gideon. Jesus knew these skewed expectations would become an obstacle to his appointed task of his substitutionary death. He could not allow those who wanted to make him a political revolutionary to deter him from his true mission. Thus he had to urge quiet, so that he might follow his father’s will, not the misguided will of the crowd.

Says R. T. France, the insistence on secrecy then is to be “understood as reflecting a real danger that Jesus could achieve unwanted popularity merely as a wonder-worker, or worse still as a nationalistic liberator, and so foster a serious misunderstanding of the true nature of his mission.”

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Or as Donald Hagner put it, “Jesus desires simply to avoid inflaming popular, but mistaken, messianic expectations that looked for an immediate national-political deliverance”. And a briefer, but potent, comment from D. A. Carson is worth featuring: Jesus “came to die, not to trounce the Romans”.

In addition to all this, Scripture itself gives us some reasons why Jesus enjoined silence. Consider Mark 1:45: “Instead [the healed leper] went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.”

So the ministry of Jesus was being hampered, and it seems that the crowds simply came to partake of the miracles, and not avail themselves of the real reason Christ had come: to bring salvation to sinners. Consider the story of the raising of the dead girl (Mark 5:38-43). Verse 43 says this: “He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.” Darrell Bock comments on Luke’s account of this story:

Jesus’ point seems to be that he does not want undue attention brought to what he has done. To broadcast this healing far and wide will turn him into a wonder-worker, with all the public attention focused on that ministry. Jesus wants the attention elsewhere, on his central teaching, and will have nothing to do with the promotion of actions that place the emphasis in the wrong place (see 4:41; 5:14). The miracles point to more fundamental realities. Jesus wants to major on the major issues.

The story involving the healing of the deaf man in Mark 7:32-37 is another example. In 7:36 we read, “Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.” Although his order met with little success, the same emphasis is noted by the commentators.

Larry Hurtado remarks: “Jesus’ works formed part of his proclamation of the kingdom of God and were signs of its advance, and he seems to have been uninterested in taking advantage of the notoriety resulting from his ministry for personal gain, even showing an uneasiness with the notoriety when it was unaccompanied by any acceptance of his primary message.”

Other such passages can be noted such as the story of the healing of the blind man (Mark 8:22-26). There we read, “Jesus sent him home, saying, ‘Don’t go into the village’.” The many commands to silence show a certain hesitancy on the part of Jesus to relish in the miraculous. Indeed, his attempt to downplay his miracles contrasts with many of the faith healers of today who seem to especially emphasise the miraculous and the associated notoriety.

But Jesus would not be diverted by the signs and wonders. Whether to avoid an undue emphasis on wonder-working, or to avoid the implication that he was merely there to liberate Israel from her enemies, Jesus seemed to minimize the miracles, focusing instead on his core message which lead to Calvary.

One further question can be asked here. Do miracles always produce faith, leading people to salvation? The biblical data is mixed. Some passages show us that miracles did lead to faith, such as after the raising of Lazarus: “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him” (John 11:45).

Other passages however seem to indicate that faith was not always generated as a result of exposure to miracles. Luke 16:19-31 tells the story of the rich man in hell who wanted to warn his brothers of impending judgement with a messenger from the grave.

He was told in verse 31 however that “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. Those who, because of unbelief and worldliness, will not heed God’s written word will not easily be moved by a miracle, even a resurrection miracle.

So we don’t always detect a clear relationship between miracles and faith. Some lead to faith, some do not. In his 1999 book Jesus the Miracle Worker Graham Twelftree nicely summarises what he calls the “ambiguity of miracles.” He writes: “Miracles in themselves neither create faith nor dispel doubt. Rather, they confirm a person’s position in relation to Jesus.”

The words of Edwards in regard to Jesus’ command of silence to the demons found in Mark 1:34 offers a fitting conclusion to this discussion:

God’s Son channels his authority and power in hiddenness. That which truly changes the human heart and ultimately compels one to recognize and follow Jesus can never come from coercion or a display of miraculous power. Jesus will have no allegiance exacted by amazement and astonishment. The faith of his disciples must be evoked through humility and ultimately through suffering. If one will not receive Jesus in this form, one will not receive Jesus in all his power and majesty.

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3 Responses to Miracles and the Messianic Secret

  • Thanks Bill,
    “That which truly changes the human heart and ultimately compels one to recognize and follow Jesus can never come from coercion or a display of miraculous power” says a lot. E.g. Muslims often argue that Jesus never claimed to be God, and there is an element of truth in that: but more relevant is that Jesus never got on a soapbox thumping his chest declaring I am God and look at the mighty miracles I can do.

    Rather he seeks people to recognise and meet him by personal spiritual understanding. Similarly, while Jesus strongly condemns any legalistic traditions of man that suppress a heart-knowledge of what pleases God, he is silent on the Jewish tradition of refusing to speak the name of YHWH, which David and others repeatedly and clearly spoke and wrote. I understand this as that Jesus wants people to come to their own personal conclusions that he is the Messiah, and in a sense YHWH himself.

  • Thanks Bill for bringing all these reasons to our attention as I thought Jesus knew He wouldn’t be able to get to the most vulnerable unless he kept all the spectators away.

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