Why did Jesus try to conceal his identity?
by Zenon Sommers—
Many Old Testament writings mention the Messiah. The image they form is one of a conquering hero who will come to lift the Jewish people from their oppression and deliver to them the kingdom of God, a time of peace during which there is no war, cold, or darkness. One of the most prominent passages is found in the book of Zechariah, one of the twelve minor prophets of the Tanakh. The author, writing from the perspective of God, says that he will send “all the nations of the earth” (Zechariah 12.3) to war against Israel. In Jesus’ time, people thought that this referred to the Roman Empire. The passage continues by telling of a day of glory when God would send a messenger through the line of David to “destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem” (Zechariah 12.9) and “fight against those nations” (Zechariah 14.3). The Jewish people expected a conquering hero to come and wage war against their oppressors.
The author of Mark’s gospel, who will be referred to as Mark for convenience, writes in the first line that Jesus is the Messiah, using “Christ,” the Greek word for Messiah: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1.1). Because this is the first sentence of the gospel, it is clear that Mark intends Jesus’ identity as the Messiah to be a central focus of the story. Jesus’ first words in the gospel are that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1.14). If Jesus’ message is that the kingdom of God is drawing near, that must mean that the coming of the Messiah is drawing near, as the Messiah of the Tanakh is God’s anointed king who brings the beginning of the kingdom of God. However, Jesus’ next words are not a proclamation of his being the Messiah; instead, he tells people to “repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1.14). Mark clearly presents Jesus as the Messiah, but the words Jesus speaks appear to be a call to prepare for the coming of the Messiah rather than a proclamation that he has arrived.
The first person Jesus helps in his ministry is a man “with an unclean spirit” (Mark 1.23). The spirit recognizes Jesus as the Messiah immediately, calling him “the Holy One of God” (Mark 1.24) and asking if he has come to destroy it and its kind, another event that would occur with the coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ immediate response is to tell the spirit to hold its tongue, presumably so no one else hears it call him the Messiah. Only after that command does he tell the spirit to leave the man. Later, Mark writes that Jesus, when casting out demons, “would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (Mark 1.34). It almost seems as if Mark’s Jesus cast out demons primarily to prevent them from telling people that he was the Messiah. His ministry focuses on spreading the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God and calling for repentance, but he makes efforts throughout that ministry to prevent the news from spreading that he is the Messiah.
Jesus also conceals his identity in his teaching. While preaching from a boat to a crowd on the shore, he tells a story about a man sowing seeds (Mark 4.1-9). He waits until the crowd has gone to tell his inner circle of disciples what the parable means. These disciples are an exception to the secrecy Jesus has enforced to this point. He says so outright in Mark 4.11: “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.” Here Mark’s Jesus explicitly states that there is a part of his teaching that is secret, only to be revealed to his closest disciples. Although Jesus says “the secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4.11), it is clear from his earlier, public teachings that he does not mean that the coming of the kingdom is secret. He says later that this secret is not meant to remain hidden forever but will be revealed in time (Mark 4.22). Jesus then tells them, in a roundabout way, that he withheld the meaning of this particular story because the underlying message is that he is the Messiah (Mark 4.26-29).
The disciples fully realize this secret in Mark 8. Jesus expresses his frustration with his disciples’ total ignorance of the meaning of his teaching (Mark 8.17-21). Mark leaves this matter temporarily unresolved to tell of the healing of a blind man. When Jesus first heals the man, the man can see things in symbols, but not clearly, like the disciples with the parables (Mark 8.22-24). Jesus continues pursuing the man’s sight, healing him again and giving him full sight and telling him to keep his newfound sight a secret (Mark 8.25-26). Just as the first healing parallels the disciples’ initial ignorance, the second healing parallels what follows. Jesus asks his disciples whom they think he is, and Peter replies “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8.29). Jesus responds to his disciples’ newfound understanding just as he did to the blind man’s newfound sight: by “sternly [ordering] them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8.30). This is Mark’s way of introducing the disciples to Jesus as the Messiah and reminding the reader that this story is about the Messiah.
Jesus keeps his being the Messiah hidden because he knows its revelation will bring his death (Mark 8.31). This much is suggested in his command to his disciples to keep the secret until after his death and resurrection (Mark 9.9). He prepares his disciples for the time when they can openly claim they belong to the Messiah, again emphasizing the temporary nature of the secret and the purpose that it serves (Mark 9.41). Jesus kept this secret because he knows his ministry will end when it is revealed.
When Jesus stood before the high priest and the Jewish leaders for his trial, Jesus finally stops keeping his secret. When the high priest asks “‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am’” (Mark 14.61-62). As he said it would earlier, this disclosure justifies them in killing him. It is clear that from this point, the secret is no longer kept, as the soldiers mock him as “the Messiah, the King of Israel” (Mark 15.32) while he dies on a cross. As soon as Jesus’ death, people such as “Joseph of Arimathea…who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15.43) recognize Jesus as the Messiah and begin to honor him. The secret was out.
Claiming to be the Messiah was dangerous for Jesus, as he did not fit the expectations the Jewish people had for a Messiah. Mark shows this in a scene in which Pilate offers to release one prisoner to the crowd. There are two options presented: Jesus and Barabbas. Jesus is an apocalyptic preacher who speaks as the kingdom of God as a moral and spiritual reign of God over the earth. He spends his days serving and helping others through healings and exorcisms. On two occasions, he feeds thousands of people (Mark 6.33-44; 8.1-10). As if his actions do not speak loudly enough, Jesus says before one of these feedings, “I have compassion for the crowd” (Mark 8.2). Mark’s Jesus as the Messiah is a figure who battles the evil in the world and brings the kingdom of God by helping others with compassion.
Barabbas follows much more closely the traditional Jewish narrative of the Messiah. He was “in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15.7). He sought to solve the problems of the Jewish people through violence. This fit in line with the image of the Messiah as a conquering king who would drive out those who oppressed the Jewish people by force. Rather than a believer in repentance of and forgiveness for sins, as Jesus was, Barabbas was an insurrectionist who saw those he fought against as the ones in the wrong. The humility Jesus called for in asking people to repent and be forgiven is nowhere to be seen. The people chose Barabbas to be released and called for Jesus to be crucified, a punishment reserved for those who rebelled against Roman society (Mark 15.11-15). The contrast Mark creates between Jesus and Barabbas serves to show just how different Jesus was from the traditional Jewish idea of the Messiah.
Mark’s Jesus keeps his claim to be the Messiah a secret because he was nothing like the Messiah the Jewish people hoped for. Although Mark tells the reader that Jesus is the Messiah at the very beginning of the gospel, that is kept a secret from the characters of the gospel. The demons know Jesus, but he silences them. When Jesus heals people, he orders them not to tell people lest word of his miraculous power spread and cause people to suspect he might be the Messiah. He concealed the meaning of his teaching from all but his disciples, as he slowly revealed his identity to them. When Jesus finally releases his secret to the public, the Jewish leaders and the crowd are so enraged by his claim that they call for his death. Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah was so revolutionary that the response it caused warranted his death on a Roman cross.