Mark 3:7-12. The story so far…

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” But he gave them strict orders not to tell who he was.


We’ve come to the end of the first part of Mark’s Gospel. Mark has been telling us about Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. We’ve just looked at 5 snapshots marked by opposition to Jesus from the Pharisees and teachers of the law, and this opposition has intensified as things have progressed. At first, the Pharisees were merely thinking in their hearts, “This man is a blasphemer.” But then Jesus told them that he had come not for the righteous, but for sinners. He said that his new order was going to destroy their ideas like new wine in old wineskins. He claimed to be the rightful king, the new David, and he cast them in the role of Saul. After that, they began following him around deliberately in order to gather evidence against him. Jesus confronted them about the Sabbath, telling them that they’d twisted the law and made it evil, preventing it from doing good. We saw that they even plotted to kill him, working together with their natural enemies; that bunch of politically motivated sell-outs, the Herodians.

The Herodians were those Jews who supported Herod, the puppet king propped up by Gentile Rome over a people who mostly despised him and disliked his rule, which was characterised by childish rage and indulgence. The Herodians, incidentally, will be more than happy to oppose Jesus too. Herod is their king, and they don’t want to rock that fragile boat. Jewish history under Roman rule is marked by periodic popular uprisings under the leadership of quasi-messianic figures- historians of the time tell us this, and we also have statements like that made by the commander at Paul’s arrest in Ephesus (Acts 21:38). Herod’s fan club will be constantly aware of the precariousness of their leader’s authority, and will be alert to any popular figure who might undermine him. Herod himself, of course, feared Jesus in whom he saw John the Baptist, back from the grave to haunt him (Mark 6:16).

Mark records the alliance to underline the hatred of the Pharisees against Jesus. They had hardened their hearts against him, and were willing to do anything to be rid of him- even to join forces with those they despised as Gentile-collaborators.

Summary statement.

In the rest of the chapter, from v13-35, we have effectively one unit, describing 3 groups of people: The apostles, Jesus’ natural family, and the Pharisees. But we’ll deal with that next time. Before v13-35, we have a summary statement describing the sorts of things Jesus was doing at this stage in his ministry.


We can see that Jesus’ fame has grown during the time he has ministered in Galilee. Jesus is now a national celebrity. Mark has told us before of the crowds which he has drawn- how “the whole city was gathered together at the door“of the house where Jesus was in Capernaum (1:33), but in this passage, interest in Jesus seems to have spread even more widely. Crowds from Galilee dog his movements, as we would expect, since he has been living in Capernaum for a while. At the end of Ch 1, Jesus’ “fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28). But although large crowds gathered, they gathered from just one or two towns. Now, things are very different. The folk here are not only from the local area. People have come from all over the country, specifically to see and hear Jesus. Everyone has heard something about who he is. Almost certainly, messianic rumours are spreading, and everyone wants to see the man who might be King. There are people from the South- from Judea and Idumea. There are people from the other side of the Jordan, where Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh had settled way back in Joshua’s day. There are people from up in the North, from the mixed Jew-Gentile populations of Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon. Everybody and anybody Jewish wants to know more about this Galilean teacher who can heal and cast out demons.

And Jesus does not disappoint the crowds. He keeps doing as he has been doing. He heals, casts out demons and teaches. His teaching is about the kingdom of God. We have already had a summary of it already: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (1:15). We shall have some more detailed examples with the parables in Ch 4, which again are all about the King and the inauguration of his Kingdom. And Jesus’ miraculous signs underline and prove his teaching: They are signs of the kingdom.


Again in this summary, we have the demons who recognise who Jesus is. They stand in contrast to the crowds. Men call Jesus “Lord” or “teacher”. It is the unclean spirits who call him “Holy one of God” and “Son of God”. But Jesus commands them to be silent!

We’ve seen the same thing happen when Jesus dealt with demons in 1:24-25, and 1:34.

Does this strike you as odd? Jesus is going around telling the crowds to repent and believe the good news of the newly arrived Kingdom. Wouldn’t it help his mission to have these supernatural witnesses? Doesn’t it prove his authority to have even the demons shout his identity before they are cast out? Why does Jesus apparently want to suppress the truth about who he is?

Paul in Philippi also tells a spirit to be silent. In Acts 16:16-18, Luke writes, As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.”

But this is a very different situation to Jesus’. Jesus tells the demons to be silent almost before they’ve had a chance to speak. The demonised girl in Philippi has been following Paul around for perhaps three or four days. She has been a constant annoyance and hindrance to his ministry. Whenever he tries to speak, he has to raise his voice to drown her out. What she says is true, but it still amounts to heckling, and that is why Paul, “greatly annoyed” (and I don’t blame him), silences her.  If Paul had wanted his status as God’s servant to be kept quiet, he would have commanded silence immediately. He didn’t. Jesus did.

The question of why Jesus did this has become a central one in Markan studies. William Wrede published a work in 1901 entitled “Das Messiasgeheimnis in Den Evangelien“. The title of the English translation of the book is “The Messianic Secret”. This book dealt with the instances where Jesus commands the demons to be silent, and also with many other passages in the book, where Jesus…

a)      Commands people who have been healed to keep silent about what has happened (1:43-44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26).

b)      Commands the disciples not to make his identity known (8:30; 9:9).

c)      Repeatedly withdraws from the public arena, despite having eager crowds at his feet (5:37; 6:31; 7:24; 9:30).

d)      Explains that he teaches in parables not to make his teaching more accessible, but in order to make it obscure. He wants to hide what he says from most of his hearers, only revealing secrets to his inner circle (4:11-12).

e)      Uses the rather ambiguous* title of “Son of Man” for himself

On top of all of this, Mark is clear that the disciples themselves do not properly understand Jesus’ mission, even after spending three years under his tutelage.

Wrede asked himself why these passages appear in the Gospel, why Mark portrays Jesus’ status as Messiah as a big secret, known only to Jesus and the spirits.

Wrede’s own conclusion was that these parts of the Gospel must have been made up. According to Wrede, Jesus did not actually command people to keep quiet about their healings or tell the demons to be silent. He didn’t want to suppress the knowledge of who he was. This “Messianic secret” has been inserted into the narrative to explain why nobody seemed to recognise Jesus as Messiah in his own lifetime.

According to Wrede, Mark and the early church had an embarrassing problem, and this was their solution to it. Their problem was that only the Twelve and a few others saw Jesus as Messiah during his life, and when he was crucified, even they abandoned him with their hopes in tatters. When later, they all joined together under Jesus’ banner, and said that he had been the Messiah after all, it looked a bit iffy. The church needed to explain why the disciples and a wider public had not seen the obvious all along. Wrede said that Mark (or whoever wrote Mark’s Gospel) hit upon the idea of saying that although it was obvious now, it hadn’t been obvious all along. So Wrede reckons that Mark (or whoever) has fabricated bits of the Gospel in order to make Jesus’ Messiahship out to be a big secret.

Obviously, this conclusion is unacceptable to those of us who hold a more orthodox view of the inspiration of Scripture, and who don’t want to call our own imaginations “Benedict” and declare them to be Pope. But Wrede raises a real question, which demands a real answer. Why did Jesus keep his identity secret? To dismiss the question because we don’t like the answer would be to leave the metaphorical dead mouse rotting behind the fridge.

I would argue that the key passage to help our understanding of Jesus’ reasons for secrecy can be found in the account of the transfiguration. There, Jesus says to the three disciples who have witnessed this event that they are not to tell anyone about what they have seen “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9). Jesus knows that his Messiahship can only be understood in the context of his death and resurrection. People will not be capable of grasping what it is he has come to do, until after he has done it. Before he dies, people will try to force him to be their king. Jesus does not want political leadership thrust upon him- as he says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). If Jesus had revealed himself to be the Messiah fully and openly and always, the problem of John 6- where the people he has fed try to make him king by force- would only have gotten worse. There was an intense expectation of the Messiah in some sections of Israelite society, and there would always be those who would get behind a potential candidate and try to make them the Messiah they had hoped for. Contrary to there being a widespread non-perception of Jesus as Messiah, which needed explaining by the church, it seems that many people expected Jesus to be some sort of Messiah-figure. But Jesus came to be a different Messiah from the Messiah everyone expected. He connected the revelation of his glory to his resurrection from the dead, and told his disciples that not until then was he to be made known.

* You may be quite surprised that this title can be considered ambiguous. After all, most Christians automatically make the mental link to the passage in Daniel, where the “Son of Man” is a shining figure who comes to the Ancient of Days to receive eternal dominion- and that naturally links in to our understanding of Jesus as this eternal glorious king.But compare this usage to that of Job, Ezekiel, and various Psalms, and it is plain that the title has a wide range of possible meanings. We’ll go into more detail on this at a later date.

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