Why Did Jesus Command Some He Healed To Keep Quiet? [part I]


The life of Jesus has been simultaneously the most significant event in human history and one of the richest areas of academic study.  Among the many perplexing issues which have arisen from the study of his life is that of his reluctance to be forthright about his identity.  Using cryptic (at least to us) terminology such as “Son of Man,” proclaiming the coming of the “kingdom,” teaching in parables, forbidding those who recognize his true identity to reveal it—this is seemingly strange behavior for the promised savior of Israel.

In examining the question of the so-called messianic secret in Matthew, my thesis is that secrecy is a major Matthean theme and informs his understanding of Jesus’ messianic identity and the true nature of the kingdom.  Secrecy in Matthew must be understood in light of the commands to the disciples not to reveal he is the Christ (16:20), to Peter, James and John not to reveal the transfiguration (17:9), and to the disciples that the parables are intended to conceal the secrets of the kingdom (13:10-17).  Working from the story of the healing of the leper in 8:1-4, this essay will devote particular attention to that particular silence command, which is primarily focused on the legal healing requirements and the societal implications of a leper rejoining society, and loosely (if at all) related to the larger secrecy motif.

Structure of Matthew

This essay will adopt the structure of Matthew as being I) 1:1-4:16, II) 4:17-16:20, and III) 16:21–28:20.[i]  In the first section, Matthew is concerned to lay the foundation for Jesus’ public ministry, and to establish that this is indeed the promised messiah.  Scripture passages are quoted on several occasions to anchor the story of Jesus to the narrative and prophecies of Israel.

The second section is the public ministry of Jesus.  It is introduced by the following statement: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (4:17, ESV).  After Jesus calls four of his disciples, we have an introductory summary of his ministry, which consists of teaching, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing many of the sick and demon-possessed (4:23-25).  This draws great crowds, which is the setting for an extended teaching section, labeled the “Sermon on the Mount.”  Jesus reveals many of the core tenants of his doctrine that will continue to be developed in the rest of this gospel account.

Space precludes a full examination of 5-7, but one important section for our purposes is the claim of Jesus to have come not to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them.  This has raised many difficult questions, which have been vigorously debated ever since.  Without becoming lost in those debates, I contend that Jesus is placing himself as the teleological goal of the law and the prophets, and thus their true meaning and intention are pointing to his coming.[ii]

Before a specific examination of the text, an overview of a few central themes is helpful. Righteousness occurs numerous times in Matthew’s text and often carries the connotation of justice as opposed to a Pauline usage of legal standing.  The kingdom of heaven is another major Matthean theme.  John the Baptist declares the imminent arrival of the kingdom (3:2), and when Jesus starts preaching, his message is the same (4:17, see above).  The poor in spirit and those persecuted for the sake of righteousness are both promised the kingdom of heaven (5:3,10).  The parables unpack the meaning of the kingdom in various ways, and when the disciples are sent out, they are also heralding the nearness of the kingdom (10:7).

Story of the Leper – 8:1-4

When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” Mat 8:1-4, ESV

This is the first story following Jesus’ teaching on the mountain, which Gundry explains by asserting that because Matthew wants to emphasize the fulfillment of the law, he places this healing story first.[iii]  There are two routes which can be taken in expositing this passage.  One focuses on the command to silence, and works out its implications.  The other dismisses this command as pointing instead to the fulfillment of the legal requirements in regards to healing.[iv]

Carson presents a popular view: “These commands to be silent … show that Jesus is not presenting himself as a mere wonder-worker who can be pressured into messiahship by crowds whose messianic views are materialistic and political.”[v]  In other places, such as parallels in Mark 1:45 and Luke 5:15, the negative consequences of the publicity from Jesus’ healing are emphasized, but not here.  Rather, in this passage Matthew concludes with the command to go to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a proof or witness to them.  This has raised a number of questions.

Nolland believes that the command to silence is actually about this focus on the law and the priest.[vi]  Hagner looks into the meaning of “for a witness to them”: “the man was to go to the priests and make the offering not because of the need to be faithful to the stipulations of Lev 13-14, nor because he yet needed cleansing, but for the pragmatic reason of being able to gain entrée into society, as fully clean and restored.” [vii]  France keeps more respect for the law, saying that the instructions to go the priest seems to “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 reentering ‘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.” [viii]

I believe that Luz is correct in asserting that “what is meant is a positive witness initially for the priests, but then for all the people who are listening: As Israel’s Messiah Jesus keeps the Torah.”[ix]  Calvin believes that when Christ commanded the leper to show himself to the priest, this demonstrates his concern first and foremost for the glory of God, but the way in which this is done is also important: “he commands them to observe the ceremonies prescribed by the law, till the time when it should be repealed.”[x]  Though Hagner is correct to note the challenge for the leper in rejoining society, dismissing the Levitic commandments in Lev 13-14 is probably not a good interpretive move.

Another question that comes to mind concerns the nature of what the man could reveal.   Does the story of one leper being healed establish a messianic ministry?  This man would have less information than the blind men who recognized Jesus as the “Son of David” (9:27), or the three disciples who witnessed the transfiguration (17:1-13).  So, why emphasize the need for silence to such a degree?  John MacArthur suggests that if the news had been spread first that Jesus had healed the leper, the priest would refuse to examine the man.[xi]  This is possibly true, although it seems speculative.  However, the significance of a leper rejoining society should not be underestimated.  Leprosy carried a deep stigma, which could not be overcome by a mere announcement of having been cured.  In conclusion, this pericope functions to confirm Jesus’ respect and obedience to the law, and to emphasize the significance of a leper re-entering society.  The only function as far as the secrecy motif is concerned is possibly to introduce a idea that will be later developed, that Jesus’ ministry is not as straightforward as it appears, and not everything is to be indiscriminately spread abroad.[xii]  I believe Matthew is a skillful enough author that he could perhaps have both purposes in mind.[xiii]

The Messianic Secret

In 1901, the messianic secret in Mark suddenly received top billing on the theological stage with the publication of William Wrede’s book Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (published in English as The Messianic Secret, 1971).  This has proven to be deeply influential in shaping the directing of future theological inquiry, helping to usher in the era of both redaction and form criticism.[xiv]  James Dunn summarizes Wrede’s thesis as “that the Messianic secret motif in Mark has a theological rather than a historical origin.”[xv]  Separating the historical content of the gospels from the literary intentions of the gospel writers has been important ever since.

A number of scholars have provided helpful surveys of Wrede’s work.  Aune notes that Wrede argues that Jesus himself never made any messianic claims.[xvi]  In fact, Wrede believed that Mark was “totally in the dark about the historical facts of the life of Jesus.”[xvii]  The messianic secret became an apologetic device for the church of Mark’s time to explain why the messiah was rejected.[xviii]  Christopher Tuckett summarizes Wrede’s counterproposal to the idea that revelation was developed gradually throughout the course of Christ’s ministry: “Rather, Mark’s whole presentation was dominated by the idea of secrecy….”[xix]

Since the publication of Wrede’s work, he has been severely criticized, and largely discredited.  Albert Schweitzer included a strong critique of Wrede in his pivotal work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus.[xx]  According to Kelber, “Today [1988], few will give unqualified assent to the term ‘messianic secret,’ and fewer still subscribe to Wrede’s explanation of its functioning.”[xxi]  Dunn provides a number of pertinent critiques of Wrede: 1) that the healings and parables must be separated from the “secret” and that Wrede was misled by his dismissal of exorcism and the demonic, 2) that the theme of publicity is also prominent in Mark, and 3) that this argument fails to take into account the strong historical basis of the messianic secret.[xxii]

Wrede’s denial of any historical foundation for Mark’s presentation of the messianic secret has understandably irked more conservative commentators.  In the words of Wilkins: “Jesus’ desire for silence is not some theme contrived by the gospel writers to explain the nonmessianic tradition they received, but is a theme that characterizes Jesus’ historical mission.” [xxiii]  As Carson exegetes the story of the leper in 8:1-4, he dismisses the command to keep silence in Mt 8:4 as having “nothing to do” with Wrede’s messianic secret.[xxiv]

Secrecy in Matthew

After the story of the leper, secrecy begins to take a larger role.  In 9:27-30, two blind men come to Jesus, calling him the “Son of David.”  Jesus heals them, sternly commands them to tell no one, but they disobey and spread his fame all over.  A few chapters later, Matthew is providing a summary of sorts in 12:15-16: “And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known” (ESV).  When Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter answers that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  Jesus then strictly charged the disciples that they were to tell this to no one.  After Peter, James and John witness the transfiguration, they are commanded to not to talk about this vision until the Son of Man is resurrected.  Some have expanded the idea of this secrecy to include even Jesus’ use of the term “Son of Man”: “There was purpose in the ambiguity [of Son of Man] as there was with the Messianic Secret.”[xxv]

Some of the elements of secrecy are also found in the Isaiah quotations.  An understanding of Isaiah is very important to grasping Matthew.  The longest quotation in Matthew is from Isaiah 42, and part of it is: “He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;” (12:19, ESV).[xxvi]  When asked by the disciples why he teaches in parables, Jesus quotes a harsh passage from Isaiah, in which Isaiah is commanded to tell the people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive. Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isa 6:9-10 ESV).[xxvii]  France provides some analysis:

As an empirical observation (that people respond differently, and only some will reach ‘understanding’) this would not be surprising, but the point of this paragraph is that this is not just a fact of life but the purpose of God.  The truth about the kingdom of heaven is ‘secret,’ and is perceived only by those to whom ‘it is given,’ while the experience of the others has already been predicted in Isaiah’s terrible prophesy about people who are unable to grasp the truth and to respond and find ‘healing.’[xxviii]

This raises a number of interpretive questions.  How could a loving God send his Son for the purpose of hardening people’s hearts?  This seems more like the opposite of a messianic quest.  Does not God desire Israel to be saved?  Does not Jesus mourn over Jerusalem?  Why would the good news of salvation ever need to be a secret from anyone?

Coming from a Western context, things such as the parables being intended to hide the kingdom raises the evil specter of the never-ending debate between human responsibility and divine sovereignty.  An understanding of the difference between the “modern” and the “Bible” worldview is essential for comprehending some basic distinctions in expectation.  For example, assumptions of causality are widely divergent, and while the modern framework sets up a strong dichotomy between divine purpose and human agency, this assumption would not make sense the same way in Hebrew thought.[xxix]

This dichotomy, an unfortunate heritage of our modern worldview that emphasizes individual autonomy and personal responsibility, must be avoided.  Nothing leaves the modern person more uncomfortable than the idea that their destiny is out of their control, that there are other forces at work in the world.  Rather, a demythologized universe was fashioned that operates according to absolute principles and allows for unlimited human progress given the right environment and conditioning.  The postmodern reaction has destroyed much of the naïveté underlying this false universe, but semblances remain.

This is continued in part II.

[i] The third section is focused upon the death and resurrection of Christ, but this paper will look more at the earlier sections.

[ii] See W.D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew: Introduction and Commentary on Matthew I-VII, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988), 486.

[iii] Robert Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), 138.  This view is shared by Witherington, France, Alana and to some extend Davies and Allison (to name a few).

[iv] In his review of Vledder’s book, Duling reports the direction he takes with this story: “The leper (8:2-4) is of the unclean stratum (G. Lenski); Jesus’ command to go to the priest illustrates latent conflict with the leaders” (Dennis C. Duling, review of Conflict in the miracle stories: a socio-exegetical study of Matthew 8 and 9 by Epert Jan Vledder, Journal of Biblical Literature 119, no. 1 (Spr 2000): 139).  I fail to see this point in this pericope.

[v] D. A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 199.

[vi] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans), 350.

[vii] Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary 33A (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1993), 200.  The question of who the “them” in verse four refers to is difficult, since “the priest” is in the singular.  Suggestions vary from the priests being plural to it referencing the people.  I am inclined to believe both: this would be primarily a testimony or proof to the people, although clearly the priest would be a witness first (see Luz below).

[viii] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Coomentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 308.

[ix] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, vol. 2, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 6.

[x] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, vol. 1, Calvin’s Commentaries XVI (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), 375.

[xi] John, Jr. MacArthur, The Power of Jesus (Panorama City, CA: Word of Grace Communications, 1984), 12.

[xii] Of course, this is not the first time that Jesus does things unexpectedly, but it does seem to be the first mention of “secrecy.”

[xiii] Some nagging questions remain about this account.  Could Jesus have merely commanded the leper to go to the priest, instead of specifying silence?  Jesus does not explicitly indicate that the need for silence is lifted once the visit to the priest has been accomplished, although this could be inferred.  In both Mark and Luke, the problem with this man’s disobedience is the crowds it drew, not the flaunting of the legal system or the leper’s rejection by society.  However, since Matthew does not include the disobedience or the crowds, he is not concerned with that element.

[xiv] Christopher Tuckett, “Introduction: The Problem of the Messianic Secret,” in The Messianic Secret, ed. Christopher Tuckett (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1983), 1.

[xv] James D G. Dunn, “The messianic secret in Mark,” Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970): 92.

[xvi] David E. Aune, “The Problem of the Messianic Secret,” Novum Testamentum 11, no. 1/2 (April 1969): 2. Räisänen charts the progression of Mark in scholarship from a mere “collector, or a hander on of traditions” to a theologian in his own right (Heikki Räisänen, The ‘Messianic Secret’ in Mark’s Gospel (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990), 3).

[xvii] Ibid., 8.

[xviii] Aune, “The Problem of the Messianic Secret,” 2.

[xix] Tuckett, “Introduction: The Problem of the Messianic Secret,” 3.

[xx] Ibid., 7.

[xxi] Werner H. Kelber, “Narrative and disclosure: mechanisms of concealing, revealing, and reveiling,” Semeia, no. 43 (1988): 2.

[xxii] Dunn, “The messianic secret in Mark,” 93-110.

[xxiii] Michael J Wilkins, Matthew: From Biblical Text — to Contemporary Life, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 341.

[xxiv] Carson, Matthew, 199.

[xxv] Hillyer H Straton, “Son of Man and the messianic secret,” Journal of Religious Thought 24, no. 1 (1968): 1968.

[xxvi] The referent of the “this” in Matt 12:17—“This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:” (ESV), followed by the quote—is unclear.  It could refer either to the order not to make him known, or to the healings themselves.

[xxvii] Matthew has changed the quote from Isaiah, writing instead: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (13:14-15).  Instead of putting it as a command, it is a statement of fact, lessening the force.

[xxviii] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 507-508.

[xxix] Since coming to Africa, I have noted that question of causality often hinge much more on “who” did it (i.e. witchcraft in the context of sickness), and have much less of a problem with God controlling events which are done by humans.

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