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

The first part of this is found here.

Evaluating Secrecy in Matthew

On one level, the quest for secrecy seems to have been spectacularly unsuccessful.  If, as so many contend, the reason behind asking one healed person to keep quiet is to prevent popular misunderstanding of Jesus primarily as a miracle wielding wonder-worker, then feeding the five thousand was surely a huge PR slip-up![i]  According to John 6:26, after this miracle Jesus accuses the crowds of following him for the wrong reason, to get physical food when they should be looking for eternal sustenance.  Matthew, however, does not include this.  The commands to silence are not even always obeyed, such as in Matthew 9:30.  At least Matthew’s story is more consistent that Mark’s: in Mark 5:19, Jesus breaks his trend and tells the man who had just had a legion of demons cast out of him to go back and tell his whole family what had happened!  Why the opposite request in this instance?

Why bother to tell a few scattered individuals that they should not spread the news of their healing, when you heal all the sick in an area anyway, and you have become the biggest celebrity in the nation?  Another interpretation I have heard on a more popular level is that Jesus asks for silence at the beginning of his ministry, as an attempt at crowd control for greater freedom of movement.[ii]  Yet according to Matthew, that explanation does not fit.  The crowds are already following Jesus in 8:1, before the command in 8:4.  Alana explains, “Jesus’ emphatic desire to reduce the publicity of his healings to the barest minimum was, indeed, a concerted effort to conceal his messiahship.”[iii] If this is about lowering publicity, then Jesus surely failed miserably.  Given the reason above, the commands for silence about healing cannot be about reducing popular awareness of Jesus’ healing ministry.

Secrecy in Matthew concerns more than the healing stories.  Kingsbury argues that, contrary to popular scholarship, the “secret of Jesus’ divine sonship is in fact a major motif in Matthew’s story.”[iv]  He develops this by noting that most of the people in Matthew’s gospel do not realize that Jesus is the Son of God.  There are a few times when this is announced: the baptism, between Jesus and the disciples, and at the transfiguration, but in all of these instances the audience seems to be limited, and Jesus warns the disciples against telling anyone what they know.[v]  The first public proclamation to the Jews of Jesus as the son of God occurs in the parable of the wicked husbandman (21:33-46).[vi]

I agree with the basic premise set forth by Kingsbury that secrecy is a major Matthean theme.  France provides a more qualified view: “In 16:20 and 17:9 Matthew will emphasize as strongly as Mark Jesus’ demand for secrecy with regard to his messiahship, but, as we have noted at 8:4 and 9:30, in relation to healings and exorcisms this motif is much less important to Matthew than to Mark.”[vii]  This is probably a fair assessment, in keeping secrecy as an important Matthean element, but not expressed precisely the same way as in Mark.[viii]

Jesus seems to dislike being pegged into any particular category.  He warns that he did not come to bring peace (10:34), certainly a popular interpretation heard today.  Correcting misunderstanding about the nature of the coming kingdom occupied him throughout his ministry.  Thus, the secrecy motif should be understood along the lines of his kingdom teaching.  It is not primarily an attempt to dispel publicity, but beyond the actual effect of telling various people not to talk, it characterizes Jesus as being careful as to protocol and timing, jealously guarding his status as the Christ, the Son of God, and not fitting into anyone’s predefined messiah box.

Matthew should not be considered a mop-up artist peddling the remnants of Markan theology.  This seems to be the unfortunate assumption of many, as expressed by France: “it [secrecy] seems more like an occasional relic of a prominent Markan theme than an issue that was also important to Matthew himself.”[ix]  In Kingsbury’s assessment: “it has been customary in Matthean studies to accept as axiomatic the view that the truth of Jesus’ divine sonship is devoid of any aura of secrecy.”[x]  We will consider Matthew on his own merits, and assume that everything in his gospel is included with a purpose.  As far as Wrede’s view, I would dismiss it almost entirely, and affirm instead that the secrecy motif arises directly from Jesus’ historical ministry.[xi]

Secrets of the Kingdom

I propose that the real focus of the “secret” of Jesus as messiah is the nature of the kingdom, as presented through the parables.  This time of secrecy is limited, however, and once Jesus is resurrected the disciples are free to proclaim his true nature.[xii]  We must remember that Jesus was not hiding his identity for the sake of secrecy itself, forming the ultimate heavenly clique.  The following quote from Mark is relevant: “For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light” (4:22-23, ESV).  France has some good insights on this subject:

The Greek mystērion, which I have rendered by ‘secret,’ should probably be understood against the background of its use in Dan 2:18-19, 27-30, 47 (LXX and Thdt) to translate the Aramaic rāz; there God gives Daniel privileged access to the divine ‘secret’ which other wise men have failed to penetrate, so that he can then communicate it to the king.  Paul uses mystērion frequently for that which comes by revelation, not by natural insights.  Cf. the ‘mystery religions’ of the ancient world, which were characterized by carefully guarded secrecy, their ‘mysteries’ being revealed only to initiates.[xiii]

Wilkins ties the mysteries to the nature of the kingdom: “The mysteries are not that God will establish his kingdom, which was a well-known prophetic hope within Israel, but that it has arrived in a form different from what was anticipated.”[xiv]  Since the unbelieving crowd mirrors the unfaithful nation of Israel, “the truth that is revealed to the disciples is concealed from the crowd because of their spiritual unresponsiveness.”[xv]  Hagner’s view is sound: “In short, Jesus proclaims that the kingdom has come, yet it has come in a secret or veiled form that does not overwhelm the present order of things. … Only people of faith and commitments are given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God now manifested on earth.”[xvi]  Alana understands Jesus’ actions as stemming from his divergent interpretation of his messianic role from the militaristic, political Jewish expectations.[xvii]

Jesus’ coming as messiah cannot be separated from the coming of the kingdom.  The greatest “secret,” or misconception about Christ, is his mission to suffer and die.  That is deeply woven into his messianic identity.  When the angel comes to Joseph to explain Mary’s pregnancy at the beginning of the gospel story, he says that Jesus will save his people from their sins (1:21).  Note that it is only after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, that Jesus from that time began to tell the disciples about his impeding suffering and death (16:21).  Jesus did not discuss this before they recognized his true identity, and he could not allow them to discuss his true identity without realizing the component of suffering.  This is the beautiful secret of the kingdom, and all who do not harden their hearts, who hear and understand, are welcomed inside.

Application

Popular applications of the incidents when Jesus does tell those healed to go and spread the word paint this as a prime example of the evangelistic fervor we should have.[xviii]  This interpretation, however, stumbles when it comes to the commands of silence, illustrating the danger of an uncritical “reader-response” approach, in which everything in the Bible is speaking to my (ever-changing) current situation.  MacArthur makes the following application from the story of the leper (8:1-4), that because he had to go first to the priest: “It’s better for you to say nothing and let the world see that Jesus changed your life by their own examination, than for you not to be able to support what you say with the way you live.”[xix]  This is true to some extend, but I do not believe this particular command to silence has any applicability in our situation.  Since we are not Jews living in 1st century Palestine having just been healed by God, any application that tries to fit our lives into this story is suspect.

Alana provides an interesting application to a contemporary context, that of the Yurubaland church in Nigeria, where “open testimonies are required of all who are healed, especially during mass healing.”[xx]  He provides the standard analysis of Jesus keeping the healings hush-hush “so that his messiahship would not be misunderstood.” [xxi]  However, this is “clearly limited to a particular period, and no longer applies.”[xxii]  Alana’s point about the timing is well taken.  Timing and context are everything.  Saying the right thing at the wrong time can be just as problematic as saying the wrong thing at the right time.  God’s timing is often notoriously different than ours, and waiting (patience) is surely one of the greatest traits in the Christian life.

My application of the passages about the secrecy commands is to encourage a “hermeneutic of humility.”  This is a recognition that if I am in command central crafting the messianic game-plan for saving the world, my strategy would be rather different; in other words, I am not God.  Bringing in my expectations, philosophical categories, definitions of fairness, and social background to mold the text to fit my life is irresponsible exegesis.  Instead, I must be sensitive to the earth-shattering implications of the text.[xxiii]  In many ways, Jesus carried out an iconoclastic ministry, subverting both popular messianic expectation and the religious status quo.  Even the very enterprise of explaining everything in the Bible can lead to dangerous territory.  Some things we may not understand, and that is acceptable.

Another lesson from this theme is the importance of contextualization.  Doing ministry in one context will be dramatically different than another.  Jesus’ ministry took place in a very particular cultural, historical, and linguistic setting, and this is hugely determinative of his missional prerogative.  He is aware of people’s expectations, desires, and the prophetic “requirements” for his mission, which shapes the content, delivery, and timing of his teaching.  Whatever situation in which ministry is done, understanding those being ministered to is just as important as knowing the content being shared.

Conclusion

Matthew has woven a superb narrative celebrating the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ as the savior of his people Israel.  As Jesus carried out his mission according to the law and the prophets, he lived by the legal obligations for re-entering those healed from devastating diseases, particularly leprosy, to society.  Thus, his commands to those healed that they should not spread the news of their healing is not an attempt to keep the wider public ignorant of the healing going on, but rather is a reflection of the cultural milieu of the time in regards to disease, purity and the role of religious authorities in this arena.

Secrecy in Matthew is seen as the character of Jesus as the Christ and the nature of the kingdom ushered in by his ministry are hidden until the appropriate time.  Instead of ruling, Jesus came to die.  The political expectations are all wrong, and Jesus explains this through the use of parables.  These parables hide the truth from those who are not open to it, but reveal it to the chosen, who have been given to know the mystery of the kingdom.  That is the messianic secret of the kingdom of heaven.


[i] Also, it is interesting that when the contingent from John comes to ascertain if Jesus is the “coming one,” the answer Jesus provides is that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and to the poor the good news is preached (11:1-6).  Thus, to some extend Jesus does understand his messianic ministry in terms of healing and performing these miracles: this is not a complete misunderstanding.

[ii] This idea does have some support, especially from Mark and Luke, when Jesus is inconvenienced because of the large crowds.

[iii] Olu Emmanuel Alana, “Jesus’ requests to keep healings secret,” Currents in Theology and Mission 27, no. 4 (2000): 264.

[iv] Jack Dean Kingsbury, “The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen and the Secret of Jesus’ Divine Sonship in Matthew: Some Literary-Critical Observations,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105, no. 4 (December 1986): 643.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid. This contention relies upon his reconstruction of the baptism scene to show that the announcement from heaven was not heard by any humans, but only by Satan and other spiritual beings (Kingsbury 647-649).  As the text leaves this ambiguous, I am hesitant to affirm this conclusion.  I tend to think that probably the announcement was directed to the crowds.  The uncertainly of John, however, in later sending a delegation to ascertain Jesus’ identity, does seem to indicate that John did not hear the voice.  Since Matthew does not indicate the audience of the voice, this does not seem to be of great concern to him, and arguing that no one else heard the voice does not form a major part of my argument.

[vii] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 469.

[viii] If you remove the “much,” and say the secrecy theme was less important to Matthew than to Mark in 8:4 and 9:30, that is better.

[ix] Ibid., 368. Although, as noted above, later in his commentary he does acknowledge where Matthew includes secrecy.  He does not seem to know what to make of this theme in Matthew.

[x] Kingsbury, “The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen and the Secret of Jesus’ Divine Sonship in Matthew,” 643.

[xi] Although since Wrede is quite focused on Mark, his theory does not fully apply to Matthew.

[xii] Kingsbury writes, “As for the disciples, when they see Jesus following the resurrection as the risen One who re-mains the crucified One (28:5-6, 17), the suppression of their knowledge of the divine sonship of Jesus comes to an end (16:16, 20; 17:9)” (644).

[xiii] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 511.

[xiv] Wilkins, Matthew: From Biblical Text — to Contemporary Life, 477.

[xv] Ibid., 477-478.

[xvi] Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 367.

[xvii] Alana, “Jesus’ requests to keep healings secret,” 264.  See below for a fuller treatment of his article.  Although I believe Alana is incorrect to find this view in the healing stories, if applied to other parts of the gospel this assessment is sound.

[xviii] Such as Mark 5:19, but I have found no instance in Matthew when Jesus commands people to spread the word of their healing.

[xix] MacArthur, The Power of Jesus, 13

[xx] Alana, “Jesus’ requests to keep healings secret,” 263.

[xxi] Ibid., 264.

[xxii] Ibid., 266.

[xxiii] I think of the concept elaborated by Karl Barth of the plane of the divine intersecting the plane of the human: the moment of krisis (judgment).

2 thoughts on “Why Did Jesus Command Some He Healed To Keep Quiet? [part II]

  1. I agree that Matthew’s use of secret points to the distinctiveness of Jesus as the Christ (anointed king) and his new kingdom. I think the main theme of Matthew is the contrast between the kingdom of Israel and Jesus’ new kingdom. Jesus does come to save his people from their sins, yet Matthew then shows how “his people” was not Israel but “his disciples;” they are his new kingdom, and he is the new king. While he is a servant king and will die as a “ransom for many,” in Matthew he has much teaching and commanding, as king, that must be passed on as they make new, obedient disciples throughout the world in the future (the climax being Jesus’ great commission).

    Jesus does not just fit into his cultural milieu. When he heals the leper, for example, he touches him, which disobeys the law of Moses (Lev. 5:3,5). And the leper, and the crowds, would see Jesus as a great prophet who is helping and reforming Israel, who has come to save Israel, who is focused on the kingdom of Israel. Their speaking out about Jesus would merely manifest their misunderstanding; and it would increase the intensity of the hatred for Jesus by the Jewish rulers, especially the scribes and Pharisees, a hatred that begins early on in the Gospel. The mystery of Jesus’ kingdom is that he inaugurates a different, new (international) kingdom, a kingdom that most of Israel misunderstands or rejects.

    • Thanks for your comment! Certainly Matthew is exploring the implications of the new kingdom of Jesus and the contrasts that brings in. As you point out, Jesus violates a number of social norms and expectations, and pushes for a deeper understand of the law – and slowly reveals the true mystery of the kingdom.

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