“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9).
“Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ” (Matt. 16:20)
“But he gave them strict orders not to tell who he was” (Mark 3:12).
“Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8:30).
The Handbook on Biblical Criticism (4th ed.) states, “Messianic Secret refers to a discernible phenomenon in the Gospels, most especially in the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus explicitly conceals his messianic character and power until the closing period of his ministry.” [LINK]
One Oxford Theologian wrote in an essay over the subject of this “Messianic Secret,” stating:
“Despite the fact that in the Old Testament God is frequently said to harden hearts (e.g. Pharoah’s), it is difficult to imagine that deliberate obscurity was Jesus’ intention….The idea of God hardening the hearts of the Jews is itself Pauline: Rm 9.18. It is perhaps not without significance that in Acts 28.26 Paul’s last words to the Jews quote the same passage of Isaiah.”[LINK]
NOTICE: The “Messianic Secret,” if rightly understood, is not Jesus’ attempt to keep people from knowing, believing in, and following Him ultimately. Instead, it is the temporary means Jesus employed to accomplish redemption on Calvary so that all may be saved through faith in Him after His plan was fulfilled.
As the Apostle Paul noted:
“We speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8-9).
Jesus knew that had they believed in Him before the right time then they would not have crucified Him. Therefore, the Lord graciously taught in parables “to those on the outside…so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'” (Mark 4:11b-12).
John 6 is one of the most referenced chapters in the discussion over mankind’s God given abilities to respond willingly to the gospel appeal. Unfortunately, the issue of the “messianic secret” (or what I have referred to as “judicial hardening”) has been virtually ignored in many modern theological circles leading to false interpretations of these contested passages.
The audience in John 6 is a group of unbelieving Israelites looking for free food (vs. 25-31) and the twelve apostles (vs. 70). What is known about the Israelites of this day? Scripture reveals that they have “become calloused…otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (Acts 28:27). They were not born calloused, but over time they had grown hardened in their religious self-righteousness, which prevented them from hearing, seeing and responding to the revelation of God.
At this vital time in human history, they are being “judicially hardened” or “cut off” (Rom. 9:1-3) or “sent a spirit of stupor” (Rom. 11:8) so as to seal them in their already calloused condition (John 12:39-41; Acts 28:27). Scripture tells us that God is hardening the calloused Jews in order to accomplish a greater redemptive purpose through their rebellion. It is God’s ordained plan to bring redemption to the world through the crucifixion of the Messiah by the hands of the rebellious Jews (Acts 2:23).
Jesus is not attempting to persuade everyone to come to faith in great numbers as we see following Pentecost when Peter preaches (Acts 2:41). Quite the opposite seems to be the case, in fact. To accomplish the redemptive plan through Israel’s unbelief, we see Jesus actively instructing His apostles not to tell others who he is yet (Matt. 16:20; Mark 8:30; 9:9).
Moreover, Jesus purposefully speaks in parables in order to prevent the Jewish leaders coming to faith and repentance (Matt. 13:11-15; Mark 4:11-13). When great numbers began to believe Jesus was truly prophetic, notice how Jesus responded: “‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself” (John 6:14-15). Earlier in the same gospel we learn that “many people saw the miraculous signs He was doing and believed in His name. But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them…” (John 2:23b-24a). John later reveals this has been a key part of God’s redemptive plan all along:
Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn–and I would heal them” (John 12:39-40, emphasis added)
For WHAT reason could they not believe? Is it because they were rejected by their Maker before the world began? Is it about their being born incapable of responding willingly to God’s own appeals for reconciliation by God’s unchangeable decree? Of course not! They are being temporarily blinded in their already calloused condition so as to accomplish redemption for the world. This is not about God rejecting most of humanity before the world began as the Calvinistic systematic reads into these texts.
More than merely blinding the already rebellious Jews, Jesus is actively provoking them with very difficult teachings. In John 6:51-58 he tells them to eat his flesh and drink his blood without explanation or clarification. Verses 60 and 61 clearly indicate the difficulty of these teachings for His audience. Jesus is obviously not attempting to persuade this group to stay and support His teaching. He is provoking them purposefully.
In John 6 Jesus is addressing a large group of people nicknamed “the elect of God” who have “grown calloused” against His clear revelation and thus are being “given over to their stubbornness” or “blinded” from seeing the truth of who He is. This contextual information is very significant when attempting to understand the author’s intention with regard to the natural inability of mankind from birth, one of the primary Calvinistic premises.
SIDE NOTE: This is the point James White neglected to address in our debate and it continues to be the point most Calvinists seemingly refuse to engage with any level of depth.
So what do the scholarly Calvinists say about this issue? Here are some answers I have dug up in my studies:
- Passages such as Mark 4:11-12 are about Jesus preventing the crowds from making Him into a King because they have a false view of what His role will be as the Messiah. (This is likely what James White was referencing in our debate when he spoke of Jesus using parables to “prevent false conversions.”)
- By telling His apostles to keep the truth secret (Matt. 16:20) Jesus is sparing their lives because he knows they will be killed too if they attempt to convince everyone Jesus is the Messiah before the right time.
I believe there is truth to both of these claims. Indeed, Jesus did not want the crowds to merely believe in Him as their earthly king who would lead them to conquer Rome. And, it likely could have cost the apostles their lives if they had began to speak too openly about the identity of the Messiah. All of this is true, but how does it address the scriptures explicitly stated reasons for blinding Israel?
What does the text tell us is the reason that Jesus used parables?
The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ” ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ …With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. (Mark 4:11-12; 33-34) emphasis added).
Do “false converts seeking a conquering king” turn and experience the healing of God’s forgiveness, as this text explicitly states? Does this passage say that the purpose of the parables was to spare the lives of His apostles? If God wanted to express these as the reasons for His use of parables He certainly had the ability to inspire them to write:
“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might become false converts, force me to be their warrior king, or possibly kill you when you try to convince them I am the long awaited Messiah.”
But that is NOT what the inspired authors wrote. The New Testament author’s reference to this prophecy clearly reveals that God’s plan was to use these types of means to seal Israel’s rebellious hearts in their unbelief temporarily so they would not “turn and be forgiven“ until His purpose was accomplished.
This does not have to be an “either/or” proposition. Christ’s use of parables and commands to keep his identity hidden served to accomplish both redemption on Calvary and these other secondary purposes. The question is whether each of us will submit to the clear truth of God’s revelation or attempt to explain it away in order to fit our own presuppositions.
Calvinists I have debated over the years, when first confronted with my perspective, are sometimes taken aback by this interpretation. For instance, on a theological message board one Calvinistic friend wrote, “Leighton, your argument that God blinded Israel to prevent them from coming to faith sounds very Calvinistic to me.”
I responded, “Really? What is there to blind if they are born totally blind as your doctrine of Total Inability suggests?”
The doctrine of judicial hardening completely undermines Calvinism’s doctrine of Total Inability. There is no practical or theological reason for God to put a blind fold on those born totally and completely blind from birth. And there is certainly no reason to judicially harden a soul born in the “corpse-like dead” condition of “Total Inability” proposed by the T of the Calvinistic systematic.
Plus, in my interpretation the hardening is not a permanent condition set before time began that seals most of humanity into a hopeless condition for all eternity. Instead, it is a temporary condition of those who have freely rebelled for a long time, which ultimately has the redemptive goal of provoking the hardened Jews to envy so that they too might be saved (Rom. 11:14).
Despite my insistence that judicial hardening is for a good cause, some of my non-Calvinistic friends also express concerns about this teaching. And I admit, it is a fair concern. Should we really believe Jesus was intentionally obscuring the truth of who He was while on earth? Doesn’t that teaching undermine God’s goodness and love for all people? Can’t that be interpreted as violating human free will and responsibility?
Recently an esteemed mentor said to me, “It concerns me that you are conceding too much to the Calvinists on this point.” He went on to tell me that phrases like “‘judicial hardening’ are the kinds of phrases used by the Calvinist,” implying we should not use them. Though I have the deepest respect for this scholar, I simply disagree. We cannot and should not attempt to avoid the clear biblical teaching of God’s use of these judicial means to accomplish His redemptive plan. After all, these issues are the ACTUAL objections being addressed in the contraversial diatribe questions presented by Paul’s interlocutor in Romans chapter 3 and 9.
I have also had a few notable Arminian scholars object to my teaching of judicial hardening as being “idiosyncratic” and not consistent with “Arminian doctrine.” While I have never claimed to be an “Arminian,” nor do such labels interest me, I do find it beneficial to provide supporting documentation of notable biblical scholars when possible. Ironically, Jacobus Arminius taught as I do regarding this doctrine in his commentary over Romans 9.
“Arminius explains that hardening is a punishment for prior sins, and even though the person at that moment cannot avoid sinning, they are still responsible, because they deserved the hardening of freewill. Paul first reproves the objector for insolence and then explains that God forms sinners who reject His grace into vessels of wrath…” [LINK]
The doctrine of judicial hardening (or similarly the “messianic secret”) should not be a troubling doctrine for the non-Calvinistic (or Arminian) believer. In fact, when understood rightly it highlights the gracious sovereignty of a God who loves and provides salvation for every man, woman, boy, and girl–yes, even calloused, self-righteous enemies of the gospel. I will close with a segment from my book, The Potter’s Promise that explains this further:
This interaction reminded me of another story from early in my ministry as a young student pastor. I counseled with a middle-aged couple that had a rebellious twenty-year-old son still living at home. He would stay out all hours, come home drunk or high and wreak havoc in their family. The poor couple was a wreck and seeking Godly counsel. We talked for a while about the root of the issue but I finally ended up directing them to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 where the church had to deal with a brother living in perpetual rebellion. Paul advised the church to cast the brother out “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (vs. 5).
I carefully explained to this heartbroken couple that sometimes the most loving thing a parent can do for a wayward child is to let them go (Lk. 15:11-32). Even non-Christian counselors have modeled the advise of scripture by “refusing to enable someone in their addictions.” This is painful and incredibly difficult to do to someone you genuinely love.
The hurting couple followed this biblical counsel and ended up having to kick their own son out of his home. When other church members would ask the couple about him they would become incredibly uncomfortable and often change the subject as quickly as possible. One day I asked his mother why she always diverted attention away from what had happen. She told me she was ashamed of what they had done. She believed it was really the best thing for them to do, but she did not believe others would see it that way. She thought others would think she was a terrible mother for kicking her own son out of their home. It took months for her to realize she had nothing for which to be ashamed because what she had done was purely from the heart of love and a genuine desire for reconciliation with her child. Last I heard, their son had finally hit rock bottom and was in a rehab facility hoping for a full recovery.
What in the world does that story have to do with Romans 9-11 and the natural tendency of some to feel ashamed about what it appears to teach? The feeling of shame comes from the belief that God has cut off large portions of humanity for some nefarious or self-seeking reason. Some skip these texts or hide them in closets because they read of a Heavenly Father who has kicked out much of his own creation, and it is a bit embarrassing. It’s hard to swallow. It’s controversial.
But, should it be embarrassing? Should we be any more embarrassed about what God is doing in Romans 9-11 than what that couple did to their wayward son? Now, as a non-Calvinistic believer I can unashamedly answer that question, “Absolutely not!” God was acting solely out of a heart of mercy and a genuine desire for the reconciliation of every individual (Lk. 19:42). He is cutting off Israelites not because he hates them from before the creation of the world. He is cutting them off in mercy, like the heartbroken couple longing to bring their son to repentance and reconciliation by locking him out of their home. Our heavenly Father is longing for the repentance of every calloused Israelite (Rom. 11:11-23). In His divine wisdom, He knows that is best accomplished through cutting them off rather than enabling them in their rebellion.
For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. (Rom. 11:32)
- Mark S. Kinzer, Post-Messianic Judiaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 129-130, 135, 152: “Whatever answer we give to this question [the question of judicial hardening], we know that Paul was convinced that God partially hardened Israel so that blessing might come to the nations of the world… Whereas a traditional reading of Romans 9-11 has seen the hardening of nonremnant Israel as exclusively punitive in nature, the texts we have been exploring point in another direction… Also building upon Hays, Harink makes the theological implication thoroughly explicit: ‘It is not possible to see Israel’s present hardening as its unique (but unknowing) participation in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ…’ While in Pauline language, Israel has experienced a ‘partial hardening’ that temporarily prevents her from corporately embracing Yeshua-faith, she nevertheless remains a holy people, set apart for God and God’s purposes.”