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The “Messianic Secret”: Early Fabrication or Historical Reality?

“Don’t tell anyone who I am.”

If this is something that Spiderman says to Mary Jane after she discovers his secret identity, it makes perfect sense. He has to keep his secret to protect his loved ones, and he probably doesn’t want his friends knowing that he spends his evenings prancing around the city in colored spandex. Or, if an undercover cop whispers this to his informant as they slip into the underground hideout of some notorious gang of thugs, everyone understands that he has pretty good reasons for want to hide his true identity.

But Jesus? He’s the Messiah, the one who’s supposed to come and lead God’s people into all the blessings of the kingdom. That’s the best news around. Why would he want to keep that a secret?

He wouldn’t.

At least, that’s what Wilhelm Wrede argued in his The Messianic Secret. According to Wrede, the early church didn’t come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah until after the resurrection. But, once they’d come to believe, the early Christian community needed some explanation for why Jesus wouldn’t have given any overt indication of this  before his crucifixion. So, Wrede argued, the Gospel writers, particularly Mark, invented the “messianic secret” as a way of explaining this inexplicable silence.

But, is that an adequate explanation? Not according to Jesse Richards in the paper that he presented at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society: “Mark’s Nuance of Wrede’s Messianic Secret: ‘The Messianic Paradox’.” Richards argues that although Wrede’s argument is interesting and provocative, it ultimately fails to convince. Instead, he contends that these sayings manifest the “messianic paradox” of a suffering messiah, not an after-the-fact theological reconstruction fabricated by early Christian leaders.

Here’s the outline of the paper that he provides in his introduction:

First, a brief overview of Wrede’s place in historical Jesus studies, and thesis, will be provided to frame the discussion; second, a critique of Wrede’s thesis will be offered; third, A proposal of how the secrecy theme is historical and stems from the life of Jesus. Fourth the significance of Jesus crucifixion as King of the Jews; finally, literary criticism which has been used to evaluate Mark’s narrative strategy will be shown to support the Messianic paradox, and thus argue against the idea that Mark was concocting a
messianic secret.

After a lengthy summary and critique of three main lines of evidence offered by Wrede in support of his hypothesis (the distinct nature of the messianic motif, the unhistorical nature of exorcisms, and the post-Easter belief in Jesus as Messiah), Richards moves into his argument that a more plausible account of these messianic sayings can be found in the messianic paradox:

From a narrative analysis of Mark it becomes clear that Mark was seeking to emphasize Jesus as the suffering messiah. This is truly the messianic paradox—that Messiah would suffer. Mark uses pacing of his narrative to focus in on the week of Jesus’ death. His use of irony allows the themes of secrecy and messiahship to exist together, without one having to negate the other. Additionally, his irony lets the reader in on the truth of Jesus as Messiah. Mark also highlight’s Jesus’ messiahship through the climax of his narrative—the confession of Peter, and then uses triads to show that Jesus is anointed to be Isaiah’s servant of the Lord who will give his life as a ransom. The gospel is also full of intercalation, which helps to highlight this theme as well. Mark’s plot, including Jesus indictment of the temple cult, the leader’s rejection, and the disciples misunderstanding are intentionally contrasted with the God of Israel, tearing open heaven to declare Jesus his Son at baptism, and tearing the curtain open to declare Jesus his anointed Isaianic servant at death.

So, Richards argues from a variety of angles that the messianic “secret” was not a post-Easter fabrication, but was actually an historical aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry, consistent with the paradoxical reality of the suffering and crucified Messiah.

(This is last part of a series highlighting papers presented by faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

The king is dead! Long live death and destruction?

Aragorn, the king, has returned. Let the rejoicing begin! Victory is here!

But, suppose that the story unfolded a little differently. Rewind the tape a little. Go back to the part of the movie where Aragorn jumps off the ship—black cloak flapping in the wind, dark eyes fixed intently on the orc army, grim face promising death to all who stand in his way. The promises of the kingdom in his hands. The hope of all humanity on his shoulders.

And an arrow hits him right between the eyes.

Knocked back against the side of the ship, he slowly collapses to the ground in a bloody heap at the feet of his shocked companions.

The king is dead!

Without Aragorn, the ghost army has no reason remain. So, the ghosts all head back to their home under the mountain. There is no dramatic rescue of the humans trapped inside the city. The orcs win and the humans are all massacred.

No kingdom, no blessings, no shalom. Only shoah. The king is dead and all hope is lost.

Now, suppose that you’re the orc who shot the arrow.

I’m sure you really didn’t understand what you were doing. You’re an orc. So it’s not like you’re all that smart. You saw some dingy-looking guy dressed in black and holding a pretty wicked looking sword. He scared you a little. You’d heard that he was supposed to be some great king who would restore peace and order throughout the land, but you didn’t buy it. You thought he was the enemy. So, you killed him.

You killed the king.

You killed the only hope for the world.

Oops.

And, that’s exactly what happened in our story. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter had to stand up in front of an entire crowd of people and deliver some bad news. The Promised One returned. He came with all of the blessings of the kingdom: life, Spirit, peace, forgiveness, purity, new creation, healing—shalom. After so many long centuries of waiting, after all the uncertainty and doubt, after so many false hopes and broken dreams, the King came to restore the kingdom.

And you killed him.

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:36)

The King came, and you killed him. The hope of the world, nailed to a cross.

Now what do we do?

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

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I am the master of my fate…or not

“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

What a crock.

I can’t even control whether I get to work on time. Just think about all the little things that have to go just right for me to make it on time. At the very least, my alarm clock has to go off, neither of the girls can have an early morning crisis, the car has to start, everyone else has to successfully avoid crashing into me (or each other) on the way there, and countless other details. It’s scary at times to consider how little control we have over the most mundane aspects of life.

Master of my fate? I can’t even get the cat who lives in my house to do what I want.

And, I’m certainly no master of anything bigger than me. I’ve tried commanding the wind a couple of times. Wind can be quite annoying—especially if you’re sitting next to a campfire and it insists on guiding the smoke directly into your eyes regardless of where your eyes are actually located. So, I’ve tried forcing it to stop. It doesn’t work. Sadly, even if I hold up my hand and yell “Stop!” in a really commanding voice—and I can do a pretty good commanding voice when I want—nothing happens. It just ignores me. I’m pretty sure it’s really laughing and insulting me in its deviously soft wind-language. And, if you’re curious, using the force doesn’t help either. Wind is impervious to Jedi mind tricks.

A master of the universe I clearly am not.

Jesus is.

“Peace! Be still!” Just a few simple words. And yet, when they sailed from Jesus’ mouth, the universe listened—the wind slept, the waves relaxed, the raging storm ceased. Before the voice of the master, the cosmos bowed.

And the disciples were terrified. Until now, they still had not really understood who they were dealing with. Sure, they thought he was the Messiah. But this? This is something else entirely. This is someone who commands creation itself.

What’s going on here? Is Jesus just showing off so the disciples will get a clue and start to realize who he actually is? Maybe a little. But, there’s definitely more to it than that. This is the Promised One, the One who will restore God’s creation so that it again serves as the theater of his glory. This is the One who will pour the Spirit out on all creation so that it again pulses with life, sheltering and nourishing his people. This is the One with the power and authority to make everything the way it was supposed to be.

This is the voice of the master calling forth shalom.

The Messiah of the Month Club

You’re standing in front of a long row of pictures. Each presents the image of a man, and from the look of their clothes they all lived a long time ago. Underneath each picture is a brief bio. Intrigued, you lead closer and read about the first person.

Simon claimed to be the Messiah. He lived in first-century Palestine. Convinced that he’d been called by God to lead God’s people out of their Roman captivity and into the promised Kingdom, Simon raised an army in open rebellion against the Romans. He was captured and killed.

Hmmm. That doesn’t sound like a very promising beginning for a Messiah. So, you move on to the next one.

The Teacher of Righteousness was believed by many to be the Messiah. He lived in first-century Palestine. Convinced that he’d been called by God to lead Israel to a true knowledge of God, he led a group of followers into the desert and established a separatist group committed to personal and corporate holiness. He died and the community eventually dispersed.

Well, at least he wasn’t captured and killed by the Romans. That’s a little better. But, you’d still expect a little more from God’s anointed one.

Judas of Galilee claimed to be the Messiah. He lived first-century Palestine. Also convinced that he’d been called by God to lead God’s people out of their Roman captivity and into the promised Kingdom, Simon raised an army in open rebellion against the Romans. He was captured and killed.

That sounds rather familiar. You’re beginning to wonder how many of these Messiahs were wandering around in first-century Palestine. Was there a Messiah of the Month club? Could you check out a Messiah for a few weeks and see if he was really going to live up to all the hype before the grace period expired and you had to keep him or send him back? I wonder who paid for the shipping.

Jesus of Nazareth was believed to be the Messiah. He lived in first-century Palestine. Convinced that he’d been called by God to lead Israel out of their bondage and brokenness, he gathered a small group of followers and proclaimed that God’s kingdom was at hand. He was arrested and killed.

Okay, this is starting to get a little repetitive. If they’re going to have a Messiah of the Month club, they really should mix things up a bit more. How about a barbarian Messiah who leads his savage hordes on a rampage through Rome? That would be cool. Or at least have a Messiah who actually wins. Otherwise, it just gets depressing.

[You can read the rest of the posts from this series on the Gospel book page.]

What if he doesn’t come? (When He Comes 8)

“I’ll be back.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered this famous line many times in his various movies. As the hero of Terminator 2, though, he offered it as a promise to John and Sarah Connor—a promise that though he’s going to be gone for a while, he will return and rescue them from their predicament. Believing the promise, John and Sarah hunker down in a smoke-filled elevator, waiting for the hero to return with the promised salvation.

Isn’t that how it always works with heroes? Somebody’s in danger, the situation is dire, and the hero needs to be gone for a while. But don’t worry, he’ll be right back. And when he comes, everything will be just fine.

That’s reassuring.

But, what if he doesn’t make it back?

Imagine that you’re Sarah Connor and Arnold has just stepped out of the elevator. “Oh, you’ll be back soon? That’s good because those guys with the guns look pretty unhappy. We’ll just hang out here and wait for you to get back.”

Now, suppose that thirty minutes have gone by and he still hasn’t returned. There was a lot of shooting at first, but everything’s been quiet for a while. You’re starting to get a little nervous. What’s taking him so long? If those guys with the guns come back, this could get messy.

Three hours later. Now you’re just angry. Where’s that stupid robot? The elevator is hot, uncomfortable, and John is really starting to get on your nerves.

After just one day, I’m guessing that you’d have lost all hope. He’s not coming back. Now you’re hungry, you smell, you still have angry guys with guns chasing you, and still no hero.

Bad robot.

It’s easy to lose faith when the promised one doesn’t return.

Just one day and your hope is gone. How would you do after several centuries? That’s how long God’s people have been waiting by the time we reach the beginning of the New Testament. Hundreds of years with nothing but promises to hold onto.

When he comes, everything will be fine. When he comes, God’s promises will be fulfilled. When he comes, shalom will be restored. When he comes….

But, what if he doesn’t come?

[Read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.]

Flotsam and jetsam (1/28)

People ask me all the time, “Who do you read?” In most cases they’re looking for book recommendations. (Some people, particularly Calvinistas, are trying to determine if I’m safe–are my ideas and my theology grounded in what they see as credible sources.) But my answer usually surprises them: “I read dead people.”

One of the problem in the origins of christology is the question, “When did Jesus become the Messiah?” Scholarship has often assumed that Jesus’ life was non-messianic, not only that, but Jesus in fact repudiated the messianic role.

I refuse. I absolutely refuse to go back to a god who is only interested in what I do, not who I am. I have no interest in a god who keeps score, who I have to appease by doing good things and avoiding bad things. A god who is more interested in institutes and forms and structures than he is in relationships.

To sum, I appreciate his provocative introduction of the subject but find his primary notion that “suffering has no inherent value in biblical faith” seriously wanting

No King, No Kingdom (When He Comes 2)

I grew up on stories about King Arthur. Great stories. Every time you turn the page Arthur and his knights are feasting, celebrating, jousting, slaying monsters, and just having an all-around good time. It sounds like a great place to be, with peace, justice, and plenty for everyone (except the monsters, of course). And, at the center of it all, the king—leading, ruling, judging, and partying. It all works because the king is there ruling over his kingdom, making sure that everything is as it should be, striking out at anything that threatens the  peace.

But, what’s a kingdom without a king? The depressing part about the Arthur stories is that you know it won’t last. By the end of the story, Arthur will be dead and his kingdom will lie in ruins. (If you didn’t know how the story ended, I’m terribly sorry for giving it away. And, by the way, the Titanic sinks.) Without Arthur, everything falls apart.

It’s quite a simple principle really: no king, no kingdom. Until he comes back, nothing is going to be the way that it should be.

The same idea shapes the story of Robin Hood and his merry men. From one perspective, this is a story about a bunch of men who spend all their time camping, drinking, wrestling, singing, and annoying rich people. To me, it always sounded like Peter Pan for adults.

At the heart of the Robin Hood story, however, rests something much more significant. The kingdom is broken. Richard the Lionhearted, England’s king, has been gone for many years. In his absence, Prince John, the king’s brother, and all of John’s cronies have taken over the kingdom, oppressing the people and pillaging the land. The land is now ruled by greed, power, violence, and hatred.

Robin Hood and his merry men have a very different vision of how things should be. They see a kingdom ruled by grace and peace, a kingdom where the rich help the poor, the strong serve the weak, and everything is as it should be. They see a kingdom where the king rules again.

In many ways, these are stories about faith and hope. Despite all of the problems the kingdom faces, all the enemies they encounter, and all the evil they see, Robin Hood and his men press on toward their vision of the kingdom. The king has been gone for so long, many begin to wonder if he will ever return. But, Robin Hood’s men continue to long for what could be, what should be.

However, it all rests on the coming of the king. Robin Hood and his men can trick Prince John day long, and it won’t change anything. They can steal from the rich, give to the poor, and have all the forest parties their hearts desire. But, without the king, the kingdom will still be broken, evil powers will still control the way things go, people will still be oppressed, the vision will remain unrealized.

When the king comes, however, it will all be different. That’s the hope at the center of the story. That’s what makes Robin and his men work so hard toward this future vision. That’s what makes them “merry”. In the face of all the injustice and oppression, they have their vision of the kingdom and they live out that vision to the best of their ability in the forest – their little outpost of how things should be. And they have hope.

When he comes, it will all be better. When he comes, the kingdom will be restored and things will be as they should be.

When he comes….

[This is the second part of a chapter on OT promises for the future of God’s people. Read the first part here.]

Flotsam and jetsam (1/6)

I actually had work to do today, so I’m a little slow in getting this out. Nonetheless, here are some interesting links for your web browsing pleasure.

For believers…the most decisive turning point was the year 33, when a Jewish rabbi—the Messiah—was raised from the dead in Roman-occupied Palestine….This turning-point is not only celebrated but is deepened and widened in its effects every Lord’s Day.  Wherever this gospel is taken, a piece of heaven—the age to come—begins even now to dawn in the dusty corners of this passing evil age.

While shame and remorse can be an appropriate motivating factor to correct ways of thinking and living, in the wrong hands it is often misused. Stigma unaccompanied by truth is merely an apparatus of a culture not oriented toward Christ, no matter how much they may resemble the Church.

All this being said, no, you do not have to read Lewis to be a thinking Christian. No, Lewis does not answer every question. No, Lewis is not the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. But I personally have found Lewis to be a worthy dialogue partner and someone who anyone can access, great or small, theologian or lay person. You don’t have to read Lewis, but you won’t go wrong in doing so either.

Give us some examples of university theology that has no ecclesial value or some ecclesial theology that reveals how this can be done better by pastors. I’m ready to be convinced but I want to see what is actually involved here.