Christ is Prophet. Christ is Priest. Christ is King. This three-fold division of the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ has become traditional in Protestant theology. The offices declare the righteousness of God in Christ, the mediation of God for our salvation, and the sovereignty of God in the world.
One of the earliest clear references to the offices in the patristic literature occurs in Eusebius (though the work of Christ in each role was evident to the Church from apostolic days): “We have also received the tradition that some of the prophets themselves had by anointing already become Christs in type, seeing that they all refer to the true Christ, the divine and heavenly Logos, of the world the only High Priest, of all creation the only king, of the prophets the only archprophet of the Father. The proof of this is that no one of those symbolically anointed of old, whether priests or kings or prophets, obtained such power of divine virtue as our Saviour and Lord, Jesus, the only real Christ, has exhibited … that until this present day he is honoured by his worshippers throughout the world as king, wondered at more than a prophet, and glorified as the true and only High Priest of God …” (Historia Ecclesiastica, I.3).
John Calvin made the offices a point of special attention in The Institutes where his discussion though brief is characteristically lucid (II, 15). He remarks that while the concept was not unknown to the papists of his time, they used it frigidly without the accompanying knowledge of the end of the offices nor their use in the exposition of the Gospel. Succeeding theologians, especially of the Reformed tradition, have used it with varying emphasis. For example, Charles Hodge, A. H. Strong, and Louis Berkhof devote but scanty space to the prophetic and kingly offices (the substance of the latter doctrine is usually reserved for elucidation in eschatology), but each expands the priestly role to include a comprehensive statement of the doctrine of the atonement.
The idea of the offices also figures in Eastern theology. For example, in answer to the question “Why, then, is Jesus, the Son of God, called The Anointed?” The Longer Catechism of the Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church (1839) says, “Because to his manhood were imparted without measure all the gifts of the Holy Ghost; and so he possesses in the highest degree the knowledge of a prophet; the holiness of a high priest; and the power of a king.” The offices set forward the divine-human nature of the Mediator, proclaiming thus not only his uniqueness but also his prerogatives (1 Tim. 2:5).
Christ the Anointed One. In the early stages of biblical history, the three offices seem to have been joined in the role the patriarch assumed in the family. Each was in effect prophet, priest, and king to his own household, but under God. Later the division of these roles seems clear, but whether earlier or later the idea generic to each is that of divine anointing to the office. This was as true of prophets and kings as of priests (1 Sam. 16:3; 1 Kings 19:16; Ps. 105:15). Further, Israel’s hope was that, in the Messiah all three offices would be fulfilled perfectly and joined harmoniously for the inauguration of the kingly-redemptive rule of God. The claim of our Lord upon such prophetic anticipations is both authoritative and revealing (Isa. 61:1–2; Luke 4:18–19). Prominent figures in the Old Testament point to Christ whether they were anointed prophets, priests, or kings. The Coming One was to be both Jehovah’s anointed and a personal deliverer. The revelation at each point of history was revelation, discrete, concrete, actual, and sating, but together the words and events heralded the antitype Jesus Christ.
For this reason sight must not be lost of the fact that the offices interpenetrate. Christ fills them all at once and yet successively in the achievement of his mission for the world in history. His proclamation of the righteousness of God (Rom. 3:21–26; Matt. 11:27; John 3:34) was fulfilled when he purged our sins (God justifying the sinner justly, as Paul says) and then sat down upon the throne of heaven in regal glory (Heb. 1:3), and this trilogy has been seen by Christians everywhere in Scripture, for example, Isaiah 53. Christ comes as the personal word of God, the personal redeemer of the world, and the personal center of the kingdom of God.
The Theological Footing. Mediation raises the question of its rationale. This should be seen jointly in terms of righteousness and grace, wrath and love, judgment and mercy. Now the revelation of the divine love in Jesus Christ is an important emphasis in contemporary theology, but not infrequently judgment and wrath are reduced to a definition of love that evacuates them of their common meaning. The love of Christ is God’s self-giving (John 3:16) and sight must not be lost of its recreating and reconciling power. Certainly the loving concern of God in Jesus Christ for wayward man and an evil-infected world is the dominant note of the Christian revelation. But that note is no monotone, rather, it is the harmonious chord that sin deserves wrath, that grace is in view of impending judgment, and that the divine love is revealed redemptively active not over but through judgment.
The relations between God and man are personal, and to say this is to say that they are moral. Both of these realities bear upon the mediatorial offices of Christ. To say that God loves sinners without saying that God will judge un-atoned for and unforgiven sin is a saccharine conception of the divine love that squares neither with the biblical revelation of God’s character nor the plain facts of human experience. The judgment of God is real and he claims this both as his prerogative and duty. Personal and moral categories are the highest we know. Here the freedom of God and man is preserved and righteousness vindicated in the judgment of evil. The work of Christ is addressed to these two sides of the issue, and we ignore either one at our peril. The theology of the offices takes account of both and this is a salutary corrective of certain contemporary trends.
Christ as Prophet. It has been said popularly that the prophet spoke for God to men while the priest acted on behalf of men before God. As the prophets of old, Jesus Christ did proclaim the Word of the Lord, but more than that, he himself was the living embodiment of that Word. The idea of the prophet to come who would sum up both the prophetic ideal and the prophetic message dominated Israelitish thinking from the times of Moses (Deut. 18:15). Our Lord clearly identified himself with the prophetic office in its preaching, teaching, and revelatory functions, as well as with the rejection borne by and sufferings inflicted upon the ancient men of God (Matt. 23:29 f.; Luke 4:24 ff.; 13:33 f.). He called himself a prophet (Luke 13:33); he claimed to bring a message from the Father (John 8:26–28; 14:10–24; 17:8, 26); and people recognized him to be a prophet (Matt. 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 3:2; 4:19).
Primarily he epitomized the righteousness of God which he proclaimed, and his presence as incarnate joins together mysteriously the working of righteousness and grace for our salvation. A poignant manner of expressing his prophetic role as both proclaiming and being the righteousness of God is the figure of the pierced ear in both testaments of Scripture (Exod. 21:5–6; Ps. 40:6–10; Heb. 10:5–7). His humanity sums up the perfection of the divine ideal for men and in his righteousness and obedience our response is taken up and made actual. He is the true sui generis: the one who loves righteousness because he is righteous. The Scriptures forever join the noetic and moral elements of human experience which contemporary positivism and naturalism perpetually try to bifurcate. What a man knows and what he does depends upon what he is, and this moral judgment is what Christ brings to bear upon the race. He can say “Lo! in the volume of the book it is written of me I come to do thy will, O God” and “I have preached righteousness in the great congregation … I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation.” This is precisely because the divine law is within his heart, and our calling is to the same freedom in righteousness.
Christ as Priest. The surpassing worth of Christ’s priestly work over the Aaronic priesthood is the theme of the epistle to the Hebrews. The forgiveness of sins in Scripture is peculiarly attached to sacrifice for sin (John 1:29) and, as the prophetic word is the word of righteousness, Christ’s priestly act is the fulfillment of righteousness, under judgment, for the world’s salvation. The conception of his life given for our lives dominates the biblical revelation (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34, 45).
The analogies and contrasts between the Aaronic priesthood and Christ’s priesthood are clear. He as sinless needed not to offer up sacrifice first for himself as the other priests did; his blood could take away sin whereas the blood of bulls and goats could not; his work was final while theirs must be repeated (Heb. 7; 9; 10). Christ is both priest and victim, both punisher and punished, and herein lies the profoundest mystery of Christianity touching the doctrines of the Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement. The fact is that Christ’s sacrifice does not buy divine love but is the gift of that love where he submits to the judgment of our sin. The relation we sustained to God because of sin was death, and Christ entered fully into that (1 Cor. 15:3; Rom. 4:25; Gal. 1:4; 3:13). This atoning act is his high priesthood where he joins himself to us and makes reconciliation for sin (Heb. 2:17; 3:1), and, now having entered into heaven he continues his intercessory ministry for us (Heb. 4:4; 4:15; 9:11–15, 24–28; 10:19–22). He is a kingly priest glorified with the full splendor of the throne of God and by the distinctive glory of a finished saving work (Heb. 10:10–14; Rev. 1:13; 5:6, 9, 12). He bore our judgment and he died our death; he carried our sorrows and he lives now to succour us.
But a further analogy is drawn, namely, between the Melchizedec priesthood and Christ’s in contrast to the Aaronic, because Melchizedec typifies the eternal and kingly character of Christ’s work (Heb. 7). The work Christ did had to do not with sprinkling animal blood in an earthly tabernacle where the priest passed beyond the embroidered veil shielding the Holiest place but with presenting His own sacrifice in the very “temple” of heaven, the antitype of the earthly (Heb. 8:2). This priestly order, priestly service, and sacrifice are celestial, eternal, supra-national, and final. It is the prerogative of God in Christ not to receive but to make sacrifice. What God demanded he provided. This is grace not over but through judgment.
Christ as King. The reign of God among his people was the ideal of the theocratic kingdom witnessed to continually even in the failings of the Israelitish monarchy. The promise of Messianic kingship is clear in the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:12–29), in the expectation of the prophets (Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1–10; 42:1–4), in the ejaculation of Nathaniel (John 1:49), in the care with which our Lord guarded himself from the impetuous crowd (John 6:15), and in the ironic superscription of the Cross (John 18:37; 19:19). He was thought of as a king (Matt. 2:2; Acts 17:7), declared a king (Heb. 1:8; Rev. 1:5), and expected to return in regal power and splendor (1 Tim. 6:14–16; Rev. 11:15; 19:16).
This kingship has been taken commonly to be spiritual over the hearts of men in the manner of our Lord’s speaking to Pilate, and many theologians have held that the Sermon on the Mount is the declaration of the Kingdom principles and its institution. No ministry, no administration of ordinance or sacrament, no work or gift of the Spirit can be conceived of as operating under less than the suzerainty of Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:19–20; John 16:13–14). The Great Commission proclaims not only the standing orders of the church but the lordship of its author. Indeed, Paul, led by the Holy Spirit, advances from the truth that “Jesus is Lord” for every Christian to the declaration of Christ’s sovereignty in the universe (Col. 1:16–17; Heb. 1–3).
Thus the Christian hope moves along two planes of comprehension: Christ’s kingdom is the kingdom of truth and righteousness bought by his own blood, and the prerogatives he possessed and vindicated in the Cross and Resurrection and now exercises in the Church and the world point to his final assumption of power. His enemies will become his footstool (Heb. 10:13); he will yet judge the world (Matt. 25:31).
Upon the Cross as at his temptation he could not be corrupted by evil. “The prince of this world comes,” he remarked in the night of his passion, “and hath nothing in me.” Evil is borne and overcome, and the finality of Christ’s prophetic, priestly, and kingly work becomes translated into an actual victory in life for the Christian. Sin “shall not have dominion over us” because it “can not” do so any longer. Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.
This is our priesthood, our prophetic ministry, and our victory. As he was in the world so are we. There is for the Christian the suffering for Christ and the suffering with Christ. And the certainty of the Christian is this, that he is the only soldier in history who enters the field of battle with the victory already behind his back.
Bibliography: L. D. Bevan, “Offices of Christ,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, J. Orr, ed., Vol. I; R. L. Ottley, “The Incarnation,” Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. II; E. Brunner, Dogmatics, Vol. II; T. Watson, A Body of Divinity; The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Confession.
Associate Professor of Theology
New Orleans Baptist Seminary
New Orleans, Louisiana
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