“The Incognito Messiah”Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford
In this week’s reading, we begin to encounter what is one of the most surprising themes of the gospels. As Mark 2:34 reports, “[Jesus] healed many who were sick with various diseases and drove out many demons. And He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew Him.” Lest we think that this spiritual gag order is confined to demons, consider a text that will appear in our reading in several weeks, Mark 1:44. There, after cleansing a leper, Jesus tells him, “See that you say nothing to anyone.”
The leper ignores Him, but that’s hardly the point. It’s clear that Jesus, who later tells His followers to preach the gospel to every creature, is doing the best He can to suppress the truth about His identity. What on earth is going on?
In order to understand this, we need to understand the urgent nature of Jesus’ ministry. Today, we think of someone who obeyed the gospel three years ago as a new Christian--if not a babe in Christ, at least a kindergartner in Christ! However, the entirety of Jesus’ ministry was only about three years long.
Some of His disciples had been disciples of John; others were observant Jews. Still others (at least Matthew, maybe more) had been irreligious. Regardless of where they began, though, none of His followers were prepared for the transformation in their thinking that the gospel demanded. They spent three years trying to drink from a spiritual fire hose!
Throughout His ministry, Jesus displays a painful awareness of how much His disciples have to learn and how little time He has to teach them. It’s not hard to hear the impatience in His voice when He says to them in Mark 8:21, “Don’t you understand yet?” Come on, people! We don’t have time for your hard-heartedness!
Three years proved to be enough time to get the job done, even if all the disciples crater pretty spectacularly when Jesus is arrested and crucified. One year, though, or even two? It seems likely that Jesus’ ministry lasted for three years because He knew that it was the minimum amount of time that it would take for Him to prepare His disciples. Jesus could raise the dead instantaneously, but changing hearts required three years of frustrating work (which is perversely reassuring to those of us who are in the heart-changing business!).
Those three years come to an end, of course, when the leaders of the Jewish nation decide that Jesus is an existential threat to them and must be killed. They didn’t come to this conclusion on their own. Jesus provoked them into it by raising Lazarus and challenging their authority on the very grounds of the temple itself.
It was vitally important for the chief priests to decide to kill Jesus, but it was just as important that they not reach that decision too early. If they did, it would have cut into that vital time He needed to teach His disciples. I don’t think they could have killed Jesus early, but they certainly could have made it impossible for Him to teach publicly.
However, if the chief priests are deluged with reports of a prophet whom even the demons proclaim to be the Son of God, they might well move early. Jesus, then, forbids them to speak not because the message is wrong, but because the time isn’t right. He doesn’t want the narrative to spin out of His control.
Rather than being irrational, then, Jesus’ desire to conceal His identity makes perfect sense. Not surprisingly, the Man who does all things well is able to keep the leaks to a minimum, to give Himself the time He needs to accomplish His mission. Today, we are able to hear the gospel because Jesus kept too much of it from being proclaimed too soon.