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The Self-Concealment and Self-Revelation of the Son of Man

There is a perplexing feature of the gospel records that doesn’t lend itself to the easiest of solutions. On numerous occassions Jesus charged His disciples, someone He healed, or demons not to make known His person or work (Matt. 9:30; Mark 1:24; 5:6, 43; 7:36; 9:20; Luke 8:56). This should strike us as strange, considering that Jesus came into the world to draw the world to Himself. After all, the ministry of Christ was self-evidently a public ministry. He did and taught nothing subversively. The same Jesus that warned others not to tell anyone about His person or work is the Jesus who told His accuser,

“I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret” (John 18:20).

So why then did He warn certain individuals not to speak about Him or His works? In order to come to a settled conclusion, we have to consider Jesus’ statements of self-concealment in light of His teaching about Himself via His use of the Messianic title, the “Son of Man.”

The self-concealment of Jesus has long plagued interpreters of Scripture. In 1901, William Wrede popularized the discussion about Jesus’ enigmatic command to conceal His identity by offering a solution to the issue of Jesus’ self-concealment. In his work The Messianic Secret, Wrede concluded that statements found–particularly in the gospel of Mark–were added by the author in order to separate what was distinctly Messianic in Jesus’ ministry from what was not. He put forward the theory that these statements were parabolic additions to what Jesus actually said and taught. Wrede’s work enjoyed significant influence over the first two decades of the twentieth century, but was rightly rejected by evangelical and Neo-evangelical scholars throughout the remainder twentieth century.

The self-concealment of Jesus was not, however, a feature of the gospel records with which theologians had not wrestled in prior centuries. In the nineteenth century, Herman Bavinck offered what I consider to be the most satisfying explanation–namely, that Jesus charged those with whom He came into contact not to speak of His person or miraculous works lest they should misrepresent Him and the nature of His ministry. Jesus was just as cautious about not allowing people to have mistaken notions about who He was and what He came to do, as He was about revealing Himself to His disciples. Christ revealed the majority of His person and work under the Messianic title “the Son of Man,” in order to give those who heard Him a right understanding about His ministry. Bavinck explained,

“[With this title] Jesus intends to distinguish himself from and position himself above all other humans. The name also undoubtedly implies that he was truly human, akin not only to Israel but to all humans; yet it simultaneously expresses the fact that he occupies an utterly unique place among all humans. He was conscious from the start that he came from above, from heaven, and had a most special calling to fulfill on earth. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, as Peter later confesses. But he does not thus identify himself or let others thus identify him in public, lest people mistake his person and work. He therefore chose the name “Son of Man,” a name that in Daniel 7:13 refers to the Messiah and is so understood in apocryphal literature as well. But it does not follow that the people in general, or that even the disciples, on hearing the name, immediately thought of the Messiah. The opposite is likely the case, because he was never attacked on account of this title. People perhaps understood by it only that he was special, that he was an extraordinary human being, a fact that was immediately substantiated by his words and works. But for that very reason this name afforded Jesus an opportunity to cut off in advance all misunderstanding about his person and work, and to gradually inject into that name and unite with it the peculiar meaning of the messiahship that, in accordance with the Scriptures, was inherent in it to his mind.”1

His use of this title teaches us “that he was not just the Son of David and King of Israel but the Son of Man, connected with all humans and giving his life as a ransom for many; (2) that he nonetheless occupied an utterly unique place among all humans, because he had descended from above, from heaven, lived in constant communion with the Father during his stay on earth, and had power to forgive sins, to bestow eternal life, to distribute to his own all the goods of the kingdom; (3) that he could not grasp this power by violence, as the Jews expected their Messiah to do, but that as the Servant of the Lord, he had to suffer and die for his people; and (4) that precisely by taking this road he would attain to the glory of the resurrection and the ascension, the elevation to God’s right hand, and the coming again for judgment.”2

This is the most satisfying solution to the seeming contradiction between Jesus’ purposeful self-concealment and His explicit self-revelation under His favorite self-designation, “the Son of Man.” By restraining wrong opinions about His person and work––while revealing the truth about Himself––Jesus rightly filled up the Messianic title, “Son of Man,” with all of its rich biblical meaning.

1. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 250.

2. Ibid., p. 250