There’s an oddity in the Gospels that begs for an explanation: Jesus, it seems, doesn’t want people to know his true identity as the Christ, the Messiah. He keeps warning people not to reveal that he is the Messiah. Why?
Some scholars refer to this as “the messianic secret”, suggesting that Jesus did not want others to know his true identity until the conditions were ripe for it. There’s some truth in that: there’s a right moment for everything. But that still leaves the question unanswered: why? Why does Jesus want to keep his true identity secret? What would constitute the right conditions within which his identity should be revealed?
That question is centre stage in Mark’s Gospel, at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers: “You are the Christ.” Then, in what seems like a surprising response, Jesus, rather than praising Peter for his answer, warns him sternly not to tell anyone about what he has just acknowledged. Peter seemingly has given him the right answer and yet Jesus immediately, and sternly, warns him to keep that to himself.
Why? Simply put, Peter has the right answer, but the wrong conception of that answer. He has a false notion of what it means to be the Messiah.
In the centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus and among Jesus’s contemporaries there were numerous notions of what the Christ would look like. We don’t know which notion Peter had, but obviously it wasn’t the right one because Jesus immediately shuts it down. What Jesus says to Peter is not so much “Don’t tell anyone that I’m the Christ”, but rather “Don’t tell anyone that I am what you think the Christ should be. That’s not who I am.”
Like virtually all of his contemporaries – and not unlike our own fantasies of what a Saviour should look like – Peter no doubt pictured the Saviour who was to come as a superman, a superstar who would vanquish evil through a worldly triumph within which he would simply overpower everything that’s wrong by miraculous powers. Such a Saviour would not be subject to any weakness, humiliation, suffering or death, and his superiority and glory would have to be acknowledged by everyone, willingly or begrudgingly. There would be no holdouts; his demonstration of power would leave no room for doubt or opposition. He would triumph over everything and would reign in a glory such as the world conceives of glory, that is, as the ultimate winner, as the ultimate champion – the winner of the Olympic medal, the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the Academy Award, the Nobel Prize, the winner of the great trophy or accolade that definitively sets one above others.
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