Faith in the Real Jesus: Understanding Him As Prophet, Priest, and King

Thursday, 31 Oct 2013

Jesus is the self-declared fulfillment of the Old Testament promises… In Reformed theology, the three offices of Christ are seen to embrace the totality of his being and doing.

Every Christian needs to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18). The knowledge of Christ includes understanding his person and work in all their multifaceted characteristics. From earliest times the church has characterized the work of Jesus as involving the offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. The Protestant Reformers, especially Calvin, used this Old Testament-based schema to spell out the parameters of Jesus’ work for us as the mediator of salvation. At the pastoral level, the Reformed doctrines of the perseverance of the saints and assurance of salvation are closely linked with this kind of analysis of what it is a believer trusts in, what constitutes mature Christian faith. Crises in faith often stem from a failure to comprehend the perfection of Christ’s person and work and his power to save to the uttermost.

Jesus is the self-declared fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, a statement that is amply corroborated by the apostles and other New Testament authors. While “Jesus died for my sins” is one expression of saving faith, no Christian can grow toward maturity on such a basic diet. The meat or solid food that the writer to the Hebrews speaks of (Heb. 5:11-12) is expressed in the full-orbed approach of this Epistle to the comprehensive nature of the person and work of Jesus. Thus we constantly need to study the Old and New Testaments, their witness to who Jesus is, and what he has actually achieved for us. In Reformed theology, the three offices of Christ are seen to embrace the totality of his being and doing. The offices intersect at many points and embrace other roles, such as “the wise man” (Matt. 7:24-29; 1 Cor. 1:24, 30). I want to briefly examine these from the perspective of biblical theology.

Jesus as Prophet: The Mediator of God’s Word

That Jesus is the prophet is attested to in the New Testament in a number of ways. First, there are the situations in which Jesus himself owned the title directly or by implication (e.g., Luke 4:24; Matt. 5:17; Mark 6:4). Second, there are the occasions when others, including the Gospel writers, asserted that he was a prophet or opined that he must be. Third, there are those places in the text that demonstrate that the apostles and other New Testament authors were convinced that Jesus fulfilled the prophetic promises of the Old Testament and thus expounded their ultimate meaning.

Given these testimonies, we must ask about the Old Testament antecedents within redemptive history that give us a deeper understanding of the prophetic role of Jesus. Although Abraham is the earliest biblical character to be designated a prophet (Gen. 20:7), we really learn the function of a prophet from the definitive role of Moses. But even with Moses we already see some indications of the prophet engaging in both priestly and ruling ministries. This anticipates the drawing together of the three roles in the one person, Jesus. It is important to note that distinction does not mean separation. Moses not only mediated God’s revealed words, but he also mediated the redemptive grace of God in the Passover. The nation was “baptized” into him in the Exodus (1 Cor. 10:1-4), a phrase that Paul uses to indicate the union the people of Israel had with Moses in their flight to freedom. Moses mediated the rule of God in a way that foreshadowed the kingship to come.

Moses is seen as the definitive prophet in Deuteronomy 18:15-18, and he foreshadows a prophet like himself who is yet to come. The epilogue to Deuteronomy that tells of the events surrounding Moses’ death indicates that this promise, at the time of writing, has not yet been fulfilled. Yet there were prophets from Moses’ time onwards: we find prophetic ministry in Judges 6:7-10 with the characteristic indictment of Israel’s faithlessness (v. 1), and there were false prophets who proclaimed their own word and often clashed with God’s true prophets. Jeremiah condemned false prophecy and referred to the true mediator of God’s word as one who “had stood in the council of the Lord” (Jer. 23:18-22). When we look at the overall message of the canonical prophets of Israel, we see three major aspects to their message. First, in speaking the word of God they pronounced the indictment that Israel and Judah had broken God’s covenant. Second, they brought the threat of judgment or declared that past and present misfortunes were God’s judgment. Third, they gave some message of hope based on the faithfulness of God to the covenant. To sum up: The true prophet was sent by God to mediate his word concerning the covenant of grace and the implications of this covenant for the life of his people.

The failures of the prophets of Israel are rectified by the coming of Jesus as the true prophet of God. He not only mediated God’s word and gave the definitive interpretation of that word; he was the Word of God (John 1:1-6, 14-18). Thus he fulfilled the prediction of Moses of the prophet who was to come and who knew God face to face. As the Word of God come in the flesh, he provides in his being and doing the definitive interpretation of every true prophetic word from God. He also brings to light every lying word of false prophets. He is the demonstration of judgment and its substitutionary bearer, and the word of grace for salvation.

Jesus as Priest: The Mediator of God’s Redemptive Action

Priests are to be found in most religions. The term designates one who stands between the deity (be it true or false) and the people. We usually think of priests as special people who perform sacrifices to appease their god or gods. The people of God in the Old Testament performed sacrifices from earliest times (Gen. 4:3-4; 8:20-21; 13:2-4), and the word “priest” is first applied to Melchizedek as priest of God Most High (Gen. 14:18). It is to be noted that the first reference to priesthood in Israel is God designating the whole nation as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). This role is a consequence of Israel’s election and redemption from Egyptian slavery, and it is conditional upon her obedience to God’s word (vv. 4-5).

The shape of Israel’s priesthood emerges in the context of the tabernacle, which was commanded as the place where God would dwell among his people (Exod. 25:8-9). The paraphernalia that belongs to the tent includes the altar of sacrifice (Exod. 27:1-8) and the vestments for the priests, of whom Aaron is the chief (Exod. 28:1-43). The ritual of sacrifice described in Exodus 29 provides us with the rationale of atonement that gives significance to sacrifice; the highpoint of the atonement theology is described in the ritual of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). In a real sense, this annual rite summed up and comprehended all the sacrifices for sin that God required of Israel. The priest is always the go-between who mediates salvation and fellowship with God.

The New Testament takes up the rituals of the Old Testament and sees their fulfilment and ultimate meaning in Jesus becoming our great high priest who makes perfect atonement for our sins. As such, he declares that the new covenant is sealed with his blood in the way Moses sealed the Sinai covenant with the blood of sacrifice (Exod. 24:1-8; Matt. 26:26-28; Luke 22:20). The veil of the tabernacle and the temple separated Israel from the presence of God as represented in the holy of holies; only the priest could go through the veil once a year and then only with the blood of sacrifice (Lev. 16). The Gospels tell us of the rending of the temple veil when Jesus died, thereby opening the holy of holies (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:37). The Epistle to the Hebrews articulates the theological significance of this event by discussing the priestly ministry of Jesus (Heb. 4:14-5:10; 6:19-9:28). It builds on the theology of the Israelite priesthood to show the continuity between it and Jesus’ priestly ministry. But in so doing, it shows how the weaknesses of the former, the sinfulness of the priest and his mortality, give way to the superior priesthood of Jesus. Because he enters the heavenly temple through the veil bearing his own blood, we now have confidence that we have unconditional access to the Father (Heb. 9:11-14).

Jesus as King: The Mediator of God’s Rule

The heavenly host proclaims, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). Jesus owned the title of “king of the Jews” (John 18:33-38) and was acknowledged to be the true descendant of David who fulfills the promise of God to David in 2 Samuel 7:12-14 (Matt. 1:1; Acts 2:29-36; 13:22-35). But true kingship did not start with David but with Adam. This rule of Adam was derivative of the rule of God who assigned this role to humankind (Gen. 1:26-28). Though his dominion over creation was corrupted, confused, and challenged through the Fall (Gen. 3:17-19), the kingly role of God’s people was always a part of the covenantal grace. This role of mediating God’s rule is expressed in his word to Moses that Israel is unique among the nations and a “kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:5-6). This covenantal election is summarized in many places as “I will be your God and you shall be my people” (e.g., Lev. 26:12). Later, this promise is personalized and focuses on the king’s son (2 Sam. 7:14). Despite the misadventure in Israel’s initial desire for a king (1 Sam. 8:1-9), kingship was always God’s plan for humanity, and it would be imperfectly executed through Israel until perfected in Christ. The ruling purpose of God for his people is never fulfilled until Jesus comes as the true Adam and the true Israel.

It was revealed to the magi that the ruler of the Jews was born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1-6), and Mary heard it from the angel (Luke 1:30-33). It should not be overlooked that the designation of Jesus as the Son of God carried the overtones of both the true Israel (Exod. 4:21-23; Hos. 11:1) and the fulfillment of God’s promise to David concerning his royal son, “I will be to him a father, he shall be to me a son” (2 Sam. 7:14). It also indicates that Jesus’ true human sonship recapitulates and perfects the kingly role of the original son of God, Adam (Luke 3:21-38).

The Significance of the Offices of Christ for Our Faith

The unity of our one God is revealed together with the distinction of his three persons. This unity and distinction are reflected in the unity of Jesus as one person who embraces the distinction of two natures. By becoming the God-Man (both fully divine and fully human) Jesus is the perfect mediator between God and humankind. Thus in Christ we have the perfect relationship of God and man restored and then imputed to all who believe. The prophetic role of Christ is embraced in the fact that Jesus is the God who speaks; he is the very word spoken; he is the faithful Son of God who hears and is obedient; and he is the true responder to the word on our behalf. This latter property makes our prayers both feasible and acceptable. The whole doctrine of Scripture, prayer, proclamation,and biblical interpretation stem from Christ’sprophetic ministry.

The primary role of the priest is to mediate our restoration and our ongoing fellowship with the Father. Again, the doctrine of the incarnation points us to the synthesis. In the priestly ministry of Jesus, he himself is the God who is offended by our sin; he is the propitiatory sacrifice necessary for righteousness to be fulfilled; he is the justified person who is raised from the dead and exalted to the presence of the Father. Our access to the Father as his dear children, our justification, and our worship all stem from the priestly role of Jesus.

The role of the king is to exercise the universal rule that maintains the created order and harmony of creation. Jesus is the God who rules; he is the faithful people of God, the representative and true Israelite, submitting to the rule of God; he is the true and faithful Adam having dominion over creation as God’s vicegerent; he is the God who reigns over creation and brings all things to their intended consummation. Our union with Christ by faith means that we rule, are ruled, and return true worship to the King of kings and Lord of lords.

Mature faith is faith that continually grows in understanding and in conformity to the Christ who is revealed in the whole Bible. This faith transcends belief in the Christ of a few favorite texts and rejects any sentimental adherence to the pale shadow of the one whose prophetic, priestly, and kingly roles are revealed in all of Scripture. Faith in Christ is far more than simple trust that “my sins are forgiven.” It signifies our union with Christ in these roles that he mediates and radically redefines what it means to be redeemed from sin and death’one day to be fully conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18).

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