Question: "What is the Messianic Secret?"
Answer: The Messianic Secret is a theme of biblical criticism developed in 1901 by a German Lutheran theologian named Wilhelm Wrede. The Messianic Secret involves Wrede’s explanation for Jesus wanting to hide His identity from His enemies by commanding the disciples to keep silent about His mission on earth and the miracles He performed. Wrede claimed that Jesus did not ever think He was the Messiah and that Mark (and the rest of the New Testament authors) sensationalized Jesus and made Him into the Messiah. Wrede claims Mark added the Messianic Secret in an attempt to give a reason for why Jesus was not accepted by many as Messiah until after His death. Wrede’s theory enjoyed some popularity during the 1920s but faded soon thereafter.
Is there any biblical basis for Wrede’s theory? It is undeniable that Jesus told His disciples on several occasions to keep what He had done secret. Each of those incidents, however, has a much more plausible explanation than the one put forth by Wilhelm Wrede. Further, each is consistent with the other Gospel accounts, and not an invention by Mark.
In Mark 1:43–45 Christ commanded the leper He had healed, “‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.” Jesus knew the publicity about the healing would hinder His ability to minister in the area, which is exactly what happened when the leper disobeyed, and worse, the sensationalism caused by miraculous healings would hamper the spreading of His message. Because of the leper’s disobedience, Jesus could no longer enter a city without being mobbed by those seeking healing, causing Him to abandon His ministry in the city and keep to relatively uninhabited areas. The healing of the leper is also found in Matthew 8:1–4 and Luke 5:12–16, with Luke reiterating the reason for the command for secrecy in verses 15–16.
Further “evidence” for Wrede’s theory of secrecy involves the explanation for Jesus speaking in parables in Mark 4:11 where He tells His disciples that the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God had been given to them, but to others He spoke in parables so that, “though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.” This is not, however, a plea for secrecy. Rather, it is an explanation of divine revelation in the hearts of true believers, revelation that is unavailable for those who, like the Pharisees, continued to reject the truth. The “mysteries of the kingdom” are revealed to those who have “ears to hear” but not to those whose hearts are darkened. As the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus would have been able to distinguish between those two groups. Again, this is not an invention of Mark, as it is reiterated in Matthew 13:11–17.
Mark 8:27–30 is another example of a statement that has led to misunderstanding about the secrecy Jesus required. When Peter, speaking for the rest of the disciples, declared Jesus to be “the Christ,” which means “Messiah,” Jesus “strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.” Far from denying His identity as the Messiah, Jesus was aware that the people, and even the disciples, did not yet understand that He came to die on the cross for sin. They were awaiting the appearance of the Messiah as the conqueror who would free the Jews from Roman oppression. If the crowds attempted to press Him into service in such a way, His mission and message would be compromised. As further proof, Jesus immediately began to teach His disciples about His true mission (Mark 8:31–33).
The Messianic Secret theory is just that—a theory, and one that has been disproved and universally rejected among theologians. The truth is that Jesus commanded secrecy about His identity from certain people at certain times during His ministry, but for perfectly good and logical reasons. There can be no doubt, however, that by the time His ministry came to an end, His disciples knew exactly who He was and is—God in flesh who came to save His people from their sins.