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Chapter Eight: Jesus’ Messianic Secret


Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? “We are accustomed to regard it as self-evident that Jesus came forward as the Messiah and required those who listened to his preaching to believe in his Messiahship. According to the two oldest Gospels, however, he did not do this. He never tells the masses that he is the Messiah. The believers know nothing of this.”
(Schweitzer, p. 102)

What was Jesus doing in his earthly ministry if not being the Messiah? He was announcing the future Kingdom of God and preparing listeners to be admitted to it. He was not trying to convince people of his Messianic credentials. God alone would do that. In fact, Jesus while living on earth was not the Messiah. He was only the future Messiah; he was the one who would be supernaturally transformed when God’s kingdom arrived.

Two later Gospels, Luke and John, do contain passages indicating that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. Schweitzer disregards them, sticking with the two earlier Gospels. He calls attention to two incidents mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. In the first, Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem. People ask Jesus’ Galilean followers who he is. They reply: “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matthew 21: 11) If the point of Jesus’ ministry had been to announce himself as the Messiah, his followers would have known this and told the people in Jerusalem. However, despite cries from the crowd hailing Jesus as “the Son of David”, they identify Jesus only as a prophet.

The second incident, even more significant, was Jesus’ arraignment before the High Priest on the grounds that he claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus could be executed for blasphemy if convicted of that offense. The arraignment is telling. “At the trial the High Priest first tries to convict Jesus on the basis of the evidence of witnesses. Finally he makes two come forward and quote a saying that he is supposed to have uttered against the Temple. Why does he waste time with such unreliable pieces of evidence instead of establishing through witnesses that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah? He cannot, because he does not have at his disposal the three witnesses needed for a conviction according to the Law.” (Schweitzer, p. 102) In other words, Jesus did not tell people he was the Messiah or, at least, not enough of them to furnish the required witnesses.

“It never occurs to those listening to Jesus, in spite of the miracles he is working, that he might be the Messiah. In the late Jewish view the Messiah is not to be looked for as a man or as appearing in this world The Messiah of the prophets was to be born as a man and made Messiah through the bestowal by God of the Spirit. The Messiah of late Judaism, on the other hand, is a supernatural being, because the Kingdom is supernatural. Like the Kingdom, he belongs to the future. True, he is still called David’s son, as he was in the prophets. But the late post-Exilic prophets, the Psalms of Solomon, and the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra, never posed, let alone solved, the question how, as a supernatural being, he could at the same time actually be born as a man, as David’s successor.” (Schweitzer, p. 103)

Was Jesus Son of David?

“The Messianic consciousness of Jesus cannot therefore consist in a belief that he is the Messiah while he is still a man, but only in the belief that he is the one who will be revealed as Messiah at the coming of the Kingdom. Along with all who share in the Kingdom, he will receive, when it comes, a supernatural form of existence, and only then will be become the Messiah ... The question which those late Jewish scribes who concerned themselves with the coming of the Kingdom and the Messiah dared not ask themselves, because they could find no answer to it, Jesus has solved in the only way possible. He assumes that a man born as a descendant of David in the last generation of mankind will be revealed as the Messiah in his supernatural existence at the coming of the Kingdom. He is convinced that he is this descendant of David.” (Schweitzer, p. 103-104)

In the meanwhile, the knowledge which Jesus has of himself as the future Messiah must remain a secret. He keeps this secret to himself. Not even the disciples know it. There is, however, a certain knowledge that Jesus is descended from David. A Canaanite woman addresses Jesus: “Sir! have pity on me, Son of David.” (Matthew 15: 22) A blind beggar at Jericho shouts: “Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me!” (Mark 10:47) Boys in the Temple shout “Hosanna to the Son of David” after Jesus heals blind men and cripples. (Matthew 21: 15) Crowds of onlookers also shout that phrase when Jesus and his followers triumphantly enter Jerusalem. (Matthew 21: 9) While the phrase “Son of David” clearly implies the Messiah, it is not Jesus but others who push the title upon him. Perhaps these people are thinking that Jesus may become the type of earthly Messiah envisioned by the early prophets. Schweitzer does not pursue that possibility.

The Gospel of Mark, the oldest Gospel, does not introduce Jesus as David’s descendant. After the miraculous baptism by John, he comes forth only as a preacher and a healer. However, the Gospel of Luke reports that angels herald the births of both Jesus and John the Baptist in terms relating to the final days. John is promised “the spirit and power of Elijah.” Jesus is promised “the throne of his ancestor David, and he will be king over Israel for ever.” Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David, because Joseph, David’s descendant, went to that city to register for the census. The Gospel of Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage from David and from Abraham, naming each person (including Zerubbabel) in the genealogical chain. Yet, according to Matthew, the mother of Jesus, Mary, was only betrothed to Joseph when Jesus was born.

So we can see that Jesus’ claim to the Messiahship through David is rather tenuous. Jesus himself raises questions about the nature of the Messiah in a conversation with the Pharisees in the temple: “Jesus went on to say, as he taught in the temple, ‘How can the teachers of the law maintain that the Messiah is “Son of David’? David himself said, when inspired by the Holy Spirit, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ “ David himself calls him “Lord”; he can he also be David’s son?’” (Mark 12: 35-37) Jesus is quoting here from Psalm 110.

Schweitzer writes that “the solution to the riddle is that the Messiah in his earthly existence is subordinate to David as his successor, but in the coming Kingdom, as the Messiah, he is above him ... Jesus does not therefore mean, as was so long supposed, to call in question the view that the Messiah must be of David’s line. He accepts this as his starting-point, because he is conscious of being both the descendant of David and, at the same time, the future Messiah.” (Schweitzer, p. 104-105)

In What Sense Was Jesus “Son of Man”?

Late Jewish prophecy had identified the Messiah with a figure known as “Son of Man”. It is a term first used in the Book of Daniel. The Apocalypse of Enoch also associates the Messiah with Son of Man. The Psalms of Solomon and apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra mention only the Messiah and not “Son of Man”. Schweitzer points out that in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, “Son of Man” means simply a man. However, it carries Messianic overtones because of Daniel and Enoch. Jesus used the word in both senses of meaning.

“It is a mistake to assume that both designations (Son of Man and Messiah) were used in late Judaism as equivalent in meaning. In point of fact the combination in one figure of the Messiah and the Son of Man is first found in Jesus. This equation, like the idea of the human preexistence of the Messiah, was a considerable intellectual achievement. What is remarkable is the way in which Jesus used the term Son of Man not only for the supernatural being who comes on the clouds, but also when he is speaking of himself in his earthly existence.” (Schweitzer, p. 105)

Schweitzer speculates that the phrase “son of man”, in its double meaning, might have “helped Jesus to realize that the Messiah might first have to go through existence as a man. He may have found hidden in this strange expression for the Messiah the secret that the expected supernatural Messiah must also be born as son of a man” rather than being “an incarnation of a preexistent being” sent from Heaven. In particular, Jesus comes to see that “he is the man of David’s line who will be the Son of Man in the Kingdom of God.” Far from having a “heavenly preexistence”, Jesus may have “inclined to the view that a normal son of man (himself) selected for the office by God will become a heavenly being on the advent of the Kingdom.” (Schweitzer, p. 106)

The human and heavenly preexistent incarnations of “Son of Man” are a problem only to those who hold that Jesus was Messiah in his earthly existence. For Jesus himself, it was not such a problem. Jesus understood that the two types of existence would come in succession. First he would be a human son of man and then, when the Kingdom came, a supernatural one. This supernatural Son of Man, the Messiah, still belonged to the future. Even so, “through his double use of the term Son of Man Jesus demonstrates that he and the Son of Man who will one day appear from heaven somehow belong together. Here he is giving away something of his Messianic secret. He need not, however, have any fear that it will be understood. It is well protected. The idea that the expected Son of Man will have a human before his heavenly existence is one that never occurs to his hearers.” (Schweitzer, p. 106-107)

An Ill-Kept Secret

Although Jesus does not announce his position as future Messiah, his actions and words are continually suggesting it. He claims the authority to forgive sins. Some lawyers mutter: “This is blasphemy! Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus taunts them: “Is it easier to say to this paralysed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up, take your bed, and walk?’ But to convince you that the Son of Man has the right on earth to forgive sins” - he turns to the paralysed man - “ I say to you, stand up, take your bed and go home.’’ The sick man arose. (Mark 2: 7-11) Jesus elsewhere claims to be Lord of the Sabbath. He says to his critics among the Pharisees: “The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath: therefore the Son of Man is sovereign even over the Sabbath.” (Mark 2: 28) He tells his disciples that if the people of any town refuse to help them on their journey “it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” (Matthew 10: 15)

Jesus begins to attract attention from the authority he claims. No man can claim he is God. But Jesus is telling audiences that their reward in the Kingdom of God depends on how they treat him and the disciples. “To receive you is to receive me, and to receive me is to receive the One who sent me ... if anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, because he is a disciple of mine, I tell you this: that man will assuredly not go unrewarded,” Jesus says. (Matthew 10: 40-42) The Son of Man, as Messiah, will remember on Judgment Day how people treated him on earth - whether they gave him food and drink, treated illness, clothed nakedness, etc. - and treatment of “one of my brothers here, however humble” is the same as treatment of him. (Matthew 25: 40-46)

The day of the Kingdom draws near once John the Baptist is beheaded. Although people including John himself do not realize the significance of John’s ministry, Jesus does. He tells a crowd of listeners: “For all the prophets and the Law foretold things to come until John appeared, and John is the destined Elijah, if you will but accept it.” (Matthew 11:14-15) The significance of this is that one of the last barriers to the Kingdom of Heaven has now been removed. Scripture foretold that the prophet Elijah would come before “the great and terrible day of the Lord” when God’s Kingdom arrived. (Malachi 4:5) Now Elijah has come and gone. The way is clear for the Kingdom itself to arrive.

So Jesus and his followers travel from Galilee to Jerusalem. Jesus rides into the city on the back of a donkey fulfilling the Messianic prediction: “Rejoice, rejoice, daughter of Zion ... for see, your king is coming to you ... mounted on an ass.” (Zechariah 9: 9) Once in Jerusalem, Jesus heads straight to the Temple and takes charge. Jesus “went into the temple and began driving out those who bought and sold in the temple. He upset the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons; and he would not allow anyone to use the temple court as a thoroughfare for carrying goods.” (Mark 11: 15-16) With reference to the Messiah, it is written in Zechariah: “On that day ... every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holy to the Lord ... So when that time comes, no trader shall again be seen in the house of the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 14: 20-21)

Previously Jesus made an effort to keep his Messianic identity a secret. On the whole, he is successful although demons try to betray the secret. In the synagogue at Capernaum, a man with an “unclean spirit” shrieks at Jesus: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? ... I know who you are - the Holy One of God.” Jesus says to the man, “Be silent”; and, to the evil spirit, “come out of him.” The man goes into a convulsion and the spirit leaves his body. (Mark 1: 24-27) There is a similar experience on the shores of Lake Galilee. “For he cured so many that sick people of all kinds came crowding in upon him to touch him. The unclean spirits too, when they saw him would fall at his feet and cry aloud, ‘You are the Son of God’; but he insisted that they should not make him known.” (Mark 3: 10-12)

The Secret is Betrayed

An important theme in the Gospels is the story of how the secret of Jesus’ Messianic identity escapes to a place where it can do harm. The secret escapes by way of the disciples. The process begins as Jesus and the disciples are departing for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. “On the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say I am?’ They answered, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others one of the prophets.’ ‘And you,’ he asked, ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter replied: ‘You are the Messiah.’ Then he gave them strict orders not to tell anyone about him.” (Mark 8: 28-30)

How did Peter know that Jesus was the Messiah? In the Gospel of Matthew, it is reported that Jesus thinks God told Peter. Jesus says: “Simon son of Jonah, you are favored indeed! You did not learn that from mortal man; it was revealed to you by my heavenly Father.” (Matthew 16: 17-18) Jesus goes on to call Peter, “the Rock”, and say he will build his church upon this rock, and give Peter the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. These are sayings inscribed in the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Schweitzer favors another view. “We cannot reject out of hand the possibility that it (Peter’s learning the secret) was at the event generally called the Transfiguration.” (Schweitzer, p. 109) This event occurred six days after Jesus’ conversation with the disciples. Jesus took three of the disciples with him as he ascended a high mountain: Peter, James, and John. He was alone with these disciples and then “in their presence he was transfigured; his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as snow. And they saw Moses and Elijah appear, conversing with him. Then Peter spoke: ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘how good it is that we are here! If you wish it, I will make three shelters here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, a bright cloud suddenly overshadowed them, and a voice called from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, on whom my favor rests; listen to him.’ At the sound of the voice the disciples fell on their faces in terror. Jesus then came up to them, touched them, and said, ‘Stand up; do not be afraid.’ And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one, but only Jesus.” (Matthew 17: 2-8)

Peter, James, and John learn from this event that Jesus is the Messiah, the beloved Son of God. Again, Jesus instructs the three disciples not to tell anyone of this experience “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The subject of Elijah comes up. The disciples are puzzled why Jesus should speak of the Kingdom’s imminent arrival when the scriptures clearly say that Elijah must come before that can happen. Jesus tells them that Elijah has already come; he has come in the person of John the Baptist. So the way is now clear for the Messiah to come.

Schweitzer discusses the curious fact that Peter and the other two disciples did not know that John the Baptist was Elijah even though Jesus had previously told this to a crowd of people. (See Matthew 11: 7-15.)

The reason is that the disciples did not hear that conversation; they were away on a trip to the towns of Israel commissioned by Jesus. (Matthew 11:1) Schweitzer here finds evidence that Peter must have learned Jesus’ Messianic secret at the Transfiguration rather than from God. The prophecy that Elijah must first appear before the Messiah would come was so ingrained in late Jewish thinking that one cannot believe Peter would not have asked about Elijah in the earlier conversation with Jesus if he had thought that Jesus might be the Messiah. This subject only came up six days later when Jesus and the three disciples were descending the mountain after the Transfiguration. That is evidence that Peter first learned of Jesus’ Messianic secret at the Transfiguration.

In any event, Peter now knows Jesus’ secret. Peter tells the secret to other disciples in the conversation at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks the disciples not to reveal it to anyone else. So, how does the High Priest learn the secret? “Through the betrayal of Judas. Men have always pondered on why Judas betrayed his master. The main question for historical investigation, however, is what he really betrayed. The betrayal cannot have consisted in giving away the most convenient location of Jesus’ arrest. That he went each evening to Bethany could easily have been found out from spies ... What concerned the High Priest and the elders of the people first and foremost was to find something that would enable them to proceed against him and put him out of the way. Judas gave it to them. Only from someone in the circle of disciples could they have learned that Jesus thought of himself as the coming Messiah. His admission of it when questioned by the High Priest made it possible to sentence him to death without bringing in three witnesses to it.” (Schweitzer, p. 111) Jesus’ own disciple, Judas Iscariot, supplied the key evidence to justify arresting Jesus and bringing him to trial.

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