Several scripture passages indicate that Jesus Christ wanted to avoid making known publicly that He was the Messiah whose coming had been prophesied in the Old Testament. However, on at least one other occasion, Jesus told someone outside His inner circle of disciples that He was the Messiah.
Likewise, Jesus sought to avoid publicity on several occasions when He healed people, but at least one other time He instructed the person whom He had healed to tell his friends about his healing. Can these inconsistencies be resolved?
Making Known Publicly that Jesus was the Messiah
In response to Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?,” Peter stated in Matthew 16:16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Following this declaration by Peter, Matthew 16:20 says, “Then He [i.e., Jesus] commanded His disciples that they should tell no one that He was Jesus the Christ.” [Mark 8:27-30 and Luke 9:18-21 provide similar accounts.]
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
Matthew 16:20 clearly indicates that Jesus did not want His disciples to be sharing their knowledge that He was the Messiah whom God had promised to the Jews and other Israelites, but what was His reason?
In reference to this verse of scripture, a footnote in the NIV Bible says, “Because of the false concepts of the Jews, who looked for an exclusively national and political Messiah, Jesus didn’t want to precipitate a revolution against Rome.” This suggests that Jesus was concerned that if He publicly proclaimed to be the Messiah, the Jews would attempt to make Him their earthly ruler, whereas His purpose for coming to earth was to become the spiritual Savior of mankind.
In addition to supporting the reason given by the NIV footnote, John Gill’s Exposition of the Biblementions a couple of other possible reasons why Jesus did not want His disciples to be sharing their knowledge that He was the Messiah. Gill’s says,
[I]t was enough to charge them [i.e., Jesus’ disciples] to tell no man that he was the Messiah: his reasons for it might be, lest his enemies, the Scribes and Pharisees, should be the more provoked and incensed against him, and seek his death before his time; and lest the jealousy of the Romans should be stirred up, who might fear he would set up himself against Caesar, as king of the Jews, which might lead them to take measures obstructive of his further designs; and lest some persons, hearing of this, should rise and proclaim him king of the Jews, who were big with the notion of the Messiah being a temporal prince. . . .
Still other possible reasons are given by Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible, which states,
What they [i.e., Jesus’ disciples] had professed to him, they must not yet publish to the world, for several reasons; 1. Because this was the time of preparation for his kingdom: the great thing now preached, was, that the kingdom of heaven was at hand; and therefore those things were now to be insisted on, which were proper to make way for Christ; as the doctrine of repentance; not this great truth, in and with which the kingdom of heaven was to be actually set up. . . . 2. Christ would have his Messiahship proved by his works, and would rather they should testify of him than that his disciples should, because their testimony was but as his own, which he insisted not on. . . . Christ would not have the apostles preach this, till they had the most convincing evidence ready to allege in confirmation of it. Great truths may suffer damage by being asserted before they can be sufficiently proved. Now the great proof of Jesus being the Christ was his resurrection: by that he was declared to be the Son of God, with power; and therefore the divine wisdom would not have this truth preached, till that could be alleged for proof of it. 3. It was requisite that the preachers of so great a truth should be furnished with greater measures of the Spirit than the apostles as yet had; therefore the open asserting of it was adjourned till the Spirit should be poured out upon them.
A footnote to Luke 9:21 (an account similar to Matthew 16:20) in the NIV Bible offers the following explanation as to why Jesus did not want it publicized that He was the Messiah: “The people had false notions about the Messiah and needed to be taught further before Jesus identified himself explicitly to the public. He had a crucial schedule to keep and could not be interrupted by premature reactions. . . .”
With reference to Mark 8:30 (which is also similar to Matthew 16:20, The Fourfold Gospel says,
The people were not ready to receive this truth [i.e., that Jesus was the Messiah], nor were the apostles sufficiently instructed to rightly proclaim it. Their heads were full of wrong ideas with regard to Christ’s work and office, and had they been permitted to teach about him, they would have said that which it would have been necessary for them to subsequently correct, thus producing confusion.
Now let’s consider a second incident pertaining to the matter of whether or not Jesus wanted to make known publicly that He was the Messiah – in this case, the Son of God. During Jesus’ transfiguration on a mountain, God declared Jesus to be His “beloved Son.” Immediately afterward, in Mark 9:9, Jesus told the three disciples who were with Him at His transfiguration not to tell anyone the things they had witnessed until after He had been resurrected from the dead. According to The Fourfold Gospel, the reason for Jesus telling them this was that “The people were not ready for the publication of such an event.” Thus, the previous comments made with regard to Mark 8:30 seem to be applicable to this verse also.
Luke 4:41 records a third incident dealing with whether or not Jesus wanted to make known publicly that He was the Messiah. On this occasion, after He had cast demons out of many people, the demons cried out and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of God!” The verse goes on to state, “And He [i.e., Jesus] rebuking them, did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ.” [Mark 1:34 provides a similar account.]
Gill’s says in reference to Luke 4:41,
Christ would not suffer them [i.e., the demons] to say that he was the Messiah, or that they knew him to be so; either because the time was not come for such a declaration to be made, or they were not the proper persons to make it; and lest such a publication, by them, should be made a handle of by the Scribes and Pharisees, to say that he had society with devils, and by them cast them out.
With regard tothe similar account in Mark 1:34, The Fourfold Gospel states,
Those who are disposed to frequent spiritual séances and to seek information from mediums should remember that the Son of God permitted his disciples to receive no information from such sources. He forbade demons to speak in the presence of his own, even on the most important of all topics.
In all three of the preceding incidents that revealed Jesus was the promised Messiah, He instructed those involved not to publicize Who He was. In contrast, John 4:25-26, which occurred at the close of Jesus’ conversation with a woman at a well where He had stopped to get a drink, He did not attempt to keep secret the fact that He was the Messiah. This scripture passage states, “The woman said to Him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When He comes, He will tell us all things. Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He.’” So, why would Jesus have told the woman that He was the Messiah and not even instructed her not to tell anyone else who He was?
In reference to this scripture passage, The Fourfold Gospel says, “Jesus spoke more freely as to his office in Samaria than in Judea or Galilee, for, (1) the Samaritans would make no effort to take him by force and make him a king . . .; (2) his short stay in Samaria justified an explicit and brief revelation.” In other words, the circumstances of the fourth incident were significantly different than those pertaining to the three situations we previously discussed.
With regard to the same scripture passage, Normal Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., provide a broader explanation. On page 408 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, they state,
Jesus was in Samaria, not Judea. The Jews of Jesus’ day had a distorted concept of the Messiah, namely, as one who would deliver them from the political oppression of Rome. In this context, Jesus was more careful [in the first passage] to make His claims more covert, so as to elicit from His disciples a more spiritual concept of the one who came to redeem His people (cf. Luke 19:10; John 10:10).
Indeed, this is why Jesus so often spoke in parables, so that those who were truly seeking would understand, but those who had a false concept would be confused (see Matt. 13:13). . . . However, in Samaria, where this false Jewish concept of a political deliverer from Rome . . . did not prevail, Jesus did not hesitate to claim that He indeed was the true Messiah. Furthermore, Jesus said this to only one Samaritan woman in private, not to the masses of Jews in Judea.
Nonetheless, Jesus did claim to be the Messiah in public, in Judea and to the Jews. Usually, however, His claim was more covert, trying to get them to discover for themselves who He was. However, when the chips were down and it became necessary to declare Himself before the high priest, Jesus explicitly answered the question “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed” by declaring, “I am [the Christ]” (Mark 14:61-62; cf. Matt. 26:64; cf. Luke 22:70).
Making Known Publicly that Jesus Had Healed Various People
After healing a leper, Jesus said to him in Matthew 8:4, “See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded. . . .” [Mark 1:44 and Luke 5:14 give similar accounts of what is probably the same incident.]
The following footnote in the NIV Bible in reference to Matthew 8:4 offers several possible reasons why Jesus told the leper not to tell anyone how he was healed:
(1) Jesus did not want to be considered just a miracle worker, (2) he did not want his teaching ministry hindered by too much publicity being given to his healing miracles, and (3) he did not want his death to come prematurely; i.e., before he had finished his ministry.
In reference to the first of these reasons, Matthew Henry explains that Jesus instructed the leper not to tell anyone, including the priest, how he had been healed, because if the priest learned that Jesus had cured him, the priest might, out of spite, deny to give him a certificate that pronounced him clean and, therefore, he would have had to remain in confinement or isolation.
The following statements in The Fourfold Gospel provide another possible reason why Jesus did not want the healing to be publicized, and also support the second of the three reasons mentioned in the NIV footnote to Matthew 8:4:
He [i.e., the leper] required the decision of the priest to make him legally clean; and too much talk might so prejudice the priests as to lead them to refuse to admit his cure. . . . But the best reason is that it accorded with our Lord’s general course, which was to suppress excitement, and thus prevent too great crowds from gathering about him and hindering his work.
Geisler and Howe, on page 408 of their book, provide yet another possible reason why Jesus did not want the healing to be publicized, and also support the second of the three reasons mentioned in the NIV footnote to Matthew 8:4, as follows:
[W]hen Jesus performed miracles He would sometimes exhort the person to tell no one, since He did not want to be thronged by the curious. Indeed, Jesus rebuked those who, having seen Him multiply the loaves [so there would be enough food to feed a multitude of people], wanted to make Him king (John 6:15). . . .
The account in Mark 1:44 of the same incident tells what happened when the leper failed to follow Jesus’ instructions not to tell anyone about how he had been healed. This verse of scripture states, “But he went out and began to proclaim it [i.e., his healing] freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every quarter.”
A second incident in which Jesus made it clear that He did not want His healings of other people publicized involved a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech. Mark 7:36a states,“Then He [i.e., Jesus] commanded them [presumably, the man he had healed and those who had brought him to Jesus to be healed] that they should tell no one.” The previously mentioned NIV footnotes pertaining to Matthew 8:4 and Matthew 16:20 provide perspectives that are applicable to this passage also.
A third incident of the same type occurred subsequent to Jesus’ restoring life to a 12-year girl who had died. Luke 8:56b says, “He [Jesus] charged them [i.e., the girl’s parents] to tell no one what had happened.” [Mark 5:43 provides a similar account.]
The previously mentioned NIV footnote pertaining to Matthew 8:4 is likewise applicable to Luke 8:56. And, in reference to the parallel passage of Mark 5:43, another NIV footnote says,
In the vicinity of Galilee Jesus often cautioned people whom he healed not to spread the story of the miracle, His great popularity with the people, coupled with the growing opposition from the religious leaders, could have precipitated a crisis before Jesus’ ministry was completed. . . .
In all three of the preceding incidents of Jesus’ healing people, He instructed those involved not to inform others about what He had done. In contrast, after Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, He told the man in Mark 5:19, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” Thus, Jesus made an exception in this case.
A footnote in the NIV Bible in reference to this verse of scripture sheds some light on why Jesus’ instruction with regard to this fourth incident differs from what He said in the three previously mentioned situations involving His healing of people. The footnote states,
This is in marked contrast to Jesus’ exhortation to silence in the case of the man cleansed of leprosy . . . perhaps because the healing of the demoniac was in Gentile territory, where there was little danger that Messianic ideas about Jesus might be circulated. . . .
This explanation for the exception is consistent with the explanations given for the exception discussed with regard to Incident #4.
There are a number of plausible reasons why Jesus generally did not want people telling others that He was the Messiah or about His ability to perform healing miracles. However, there is apparently only one reason why He made an exception on a few occasions. That reason is that when He was not in Judea, where the population was predominantly Jewish, He had far less concern about publicly. His concern was less because the people in the other areas, unlike the Jews, were not expecting a political Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression. Therefore, they would not put pressure on Jesus to become their earthly king, which would thwart His primary purpose of coming to earth to be the spiritual Savior of mankind.