In light of preparations I am making to teach a few lessons on evangelism at my church, I was pondering the theory of the “Messianic Secret” from more scholarly circles. And a thought occurred to me that perhaps the reason Jesus was sometimes so insistent with people on being secretive about what He had just told them, or something He had just done in their lives, was because of the issue of “apostolic sending?” That is, Jesus didn’t want people to just go in their own strength and power and testify of something, even if in merely personal evangelism, until the the moment of His choosing, until the moment He “sent” them. Your thoughts please.
I consider what scholars since the time of Wilhelm Wrede have identified as the ‘messianic secret’ to be one of the most misunderstood motifs of NT theology. I’m familiar with most of the views put forth in print, because of a special interest, but have not found anything that completely satisfies or gives the subject its full due. Though to be sure, I appreciate the value of much that has been suggested (see “Issues in Religion and Theology 1: “The Messianic Secret”. ed. Christopher Tuckett; Fortress Press). I think the typical evangelical solution to the problem falls far short of accounting for all that scripture reveals on this important and neglected theme. A closer study will show that far more is taking place in the secrecy passages than the deficient proposal that the Lord was merely guarding against popular notions of what Messiah would be like.
In my view, there is only one solution that holds together the many related sayings and events where this theme is either explicit or implicit. It has to do with the hiding work of God for the purpose of judgment, but in such a way as to make evident in retrospect that Jesus alone knew the secret. That though He might have put the puzzlement of many to rest by explaining what He certainly knew of two distinct comings and all that this would imply for the outworking of redemptive history, Jesus was under divine command to withhold these things until the appointed time when all would be revealed by the Spirit. All to show that it was never the Father’s will that Jesus’ identity should be known by any other means than sovereign revelation granted most selectively to babes.
Although the demons recognized Him, they knew nothing of the strategy of the cross (1Cor 2:8). The secret, as many call it, stood to remind one and all how completely God had prepared a snare and trap for pride, and also to demonstrate the sovereignty of grace in the gift of revelation and understanding (Isa 8:14-18; 28:9-16; 29:9-15; Dan 12:10). After the revelation of the mystery by the Spirit sent down at Pentecost (1Pet 1:12; Eph 3:5; 6:19), it could now be seen in retrospect that Jesus alone was custodian of the secret, and that He was under divine commission to guard it until the time appointed, albeit in such a way that His complete knowledge of the secret would be clearly seen in retrospect. “Tell no man till that Son of Man be risen.”
Though foretold in the prophetic writings (Acts 26:22; Ro 16:25-26; 1Pet 1:11), the secret implicit in prophecy was not to be made known until the appointed time. The theme of secrecy that runs throughout the NT has baffled many, but rather than being twisted into an elitist secret knowledge as in early gnosticism, it is rather glorious testimony to Jesus’ astonishing understanding of all things. In His lonely obedience, He was sole custodian of the ‘knowledge’ that was destined to expose and overthrow the demonic wisdom of this age through the hidden wisdom of the cross (see 1Cor 2:8). “For by His ‘knowledge’ shall my righteous Servant justify many” (Isa 53:11).
So the secret is hidden from pride for judgment, but not just incidentally, but by divine design. The mystery was divinely crafted and calculated to accomplish precisely what it did accomplish, namely, “a stone that will make men stumble, and a rock that will make them fall.” When Pentecost, as the time not only of power but of the Spirit’s revelation (Acts 1:6-8) had fully come, the secret, once kept under wraps (Isa 8:16; Dan 12:4), would now be broadcast from the rooftops (Mt 10:27). No longer concealed in proverbs, parables, and enigmatic sayings, the secret would henceforth be open and published abroad (Jn 16:25).
In this sense, ‘apostolic sending’ is itself ‘an apocalyptic phenonmenon’, theologically speaking. Because the secret is more than new information. It is an event not only of divine disclosure but of spiritual quickening. It at once kills and makes alive. The revealed secret, as only apprehended by the Spirit, completely shatters the pride of self-reliance and gives an open heaven of revelation and power. A full and true apprehension of the mystery of God in Christ designs not a knowledge by which one may glory above another (1Cor 4:7), as in gnosticism. But rather a freedom in love that casts out fear and enables a selfless obedience unto death. “And they loved not their lives unto death” (Rev 12:10). The power that loves the enemy, and the freedom from the fear of death are the tests that prove the value of any knowledge or any mystery (1Cor 13:2).
Ever since Pentecost the secret has been the ‘open secret’, but whether it has been apprehended by the Spirit is shown by one thing only, namely, the presence and power of the life of the age to come, Christ revealed in the church (Jn 13:35; Eph 3:21), with the result that “now is come salvation, strength, the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ” (Rev 12:10). Thus the ACTS of the apostles (Dan 11:32-33).
So I agree that the issue of apostolic sending has all to do with the timing and transforming impact of what Paul calls “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:19). So what’s the difference with the church of the modern period? It seems that the depth of apprehension is not what it was at the first, and this has to do with a loss of the context and the conditions that prepared the way of the Lord. But I believe that Daniel 12 and Revelation 12 depict a future re-appropriation of the power of the gospel just before the final 3 1/2 years of the last persecution. So I believe we will see true apostolic anointing and sending in great power again. After all, Paul said that when he received the gospel by ‘revelation’ (Gal 1:11-17), that by itself was the sending. He did not ‘confer with flesh and blood’, but straightway preached Christ. It was certainly so with Isaiah.