Jesus’ desire to withhold knowledge of His identity is known by Scripture scholars as the “Messianic secret.” The Messianic secret is expressed in Jesus’ request that people not to reveal Him after He heals them and after St. Peter declares Him the Christ (Matthew 16:20). In the joy stemming from such great events, why would Jesus want to keep such good news a secret?
When Jesus acts or speaks, He always has a purpose. This principle holds true here.
One reason Jesus prohibits such news being spread is a possible misunderstanding of His role and mission among His fellow Jews. The widely held expectation among the Jewish people was that the Messiah would be a political and military figure. Such a figure would defeat the Romans and restore independence to the Jewish nation.
Jesus encounters this expectation in John, chapter 6. After feeding the hungry crowd, Jesus retreats into seclusion from the crowd who desired to carry Him off to make Him king (John 6:14-5).
Prohibiting those who have been healed or even His apostles from telling others who He was allowed Jesus to continue teaching them about the Messiah that He was sent to be, one who would suffer, die and rise for a deeper spiritual freedom from sin and death.
Along these same lines, while Jesus didn’t want popular opinion to define who He was, He also didn’t want to be misperceived. Individuals and crowds came out to Jesus, seeking healing, even by just touching His garments. While certainly a beautiful and necessary part of Jesus’ ministry, He didn’t want to be reduced to just a healer or miracle worker. As humans, we want to understand who someone is. Rightly or wrongly then, we put labels on people. Jesus didn’t want such a label put on Him, because we would miss the totality of what He wanted to reveal to us.
Jesus also desired to minister throughout Israel for a certain amount of time. Such an ability to minister was contingent on His freedom to minister to the people. If there was a buzz around the people that Jesus was the Messiah and setting Himself up as a king opposed to Rome, it would have drawn the attention of the Roman authorities. This may have led to the premature death of Jesus before He had time in which to reveal what was needed. Jesus’ imposition of silence kept the buzz from reaching a critical mass for a time, giving Him the time He needed to preach and teach.
Our Lord then had discernible and good reasons to heal and teach while encouraging people, He helped to keep it secret for a time so that He could reveal everything He wanted.
Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in south St. Louis.