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Basics of the Reformed Faith: Jesus as Prophet, Priest, and King

January 24, 2012

Kim Riddlebarger

The diagnosis is not very good: we are ignorant, guilty, and corrupt. But the prognosis is far worse. We are under the curse and face certain death. As fallen sinners ravaged by a threefold consequence of our sins, our hearts are darkened (Romans 1:21) and our thoughts are continually evil (Genesis 6:5). Our minds are clouded by sin and ignorant of the things of God (Ephesians 4:17-18). We labor under the tremendous weight of our guilt–the penalty for our many infractions of the law of God. We may delude ourselves into thinking that we have sinned against our neighbors only; David knew that this was not true. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). But we also suffer from the destructive pollution of our inherited sinful condition, which infects every part of us from the moment of conception. Born in sin as the Psalmist declares (Psalm 51:5), there is no good residing in us (Psalm 14:1-3). Our bodies, which are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), become instruments to act out the wickedness that would otherwise lie hidden in our hearts (Romans 6:13). The bad news is very bad. Sin leaves us ignorant, guilty, and polluted, and therefore miserable.

But there is a glorious and miraculous cure from this disease: The good news of the gospel is that while “this is impossible with men,” nevertheless, with God, “all things are possible!” (Matthew 19:26). It was John Calvin who brought the so-called “threefold office” of Christ into prominence. Utilized by many in the subsequent Reformed tradition, the threefold office presents Jesus Christ as prophet, priest, and king, who in his saving work fulfilled all the anointed offices of the Old Testament. As Calvin pointed out, the threefold office of Christ is one of the best ways to explain our Lord’s redemptive work, which by design overcame our ignorance, our guilt, and our corruption, and which even now provides us with illumination, redemption, and hope in the present.

We start with Jesus’ prophetic office in which he represents God to humanity. Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:4-5), who comes to show us God the Father (John 14:9). It was Moses who foretold of a great prophet that “the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18:15). And it is Peter, who immediately after the birth of the church, applies this passage to our Lord (Acts 3:22-23). Jesus speaks of himself as such a prophet (Luke 13:33), and our Lord expressly claims to speak only what his father has told him to say (John 12:49-50; 14:10, 24; 15:15; 17:8, 20). Jesus speaks of the future (Matthew 24:3-35), and speaks with an amazing authority unlike all others (Matthew 7:29). Indeed, our Lord's words are backed by the power of God, for his mighty works serve to confirm the truth of his message (Matthew 21:11, 46; Luke 7:16, 24:19; John 3:2, 4:19, 7:40, 9:17). In John 6:14 we are told that “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

The priestly office of Christ occupies a major place in the New Testament and includes not only a discussion of the office itself, but also of Christ’s sacrificial death to redeem sinners from their sin. The key passage in the New Testament, Hebrews 5:1 and following, lays out the characteristics of a true priest. First, “for every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (v. 1). Second, such a priest is appointed by God (v. 4). Third, the high priest offers “gifts and sacrifices for sins” (v. 1). In addition, the priest makes intercession for the people (Hebrews 7:25), blessing them in the name of God (Luke 9:22). Clearly, Jesus Christ is the high priest par excellence. Although he is the only New Testament writer who applies the term to Jesus, the author of Hebrews repeatedly speaks of Jesus as a priest.

As for the kingly office of Christ, the Scriptures declare that “the Lord has established his throne in heaven and his kingdom rules over it” (Psalm 103:19). Unlike those who argue that Christ delays the full manifestation of his rule in this present age until a millennial age yet to come, Jesus presently exercises full dominion over all things. Jesus is King of kings, and his kingdom is a kingdom both of grace and of power. In his ascension, Jesus Christ ascended to the right hand of his father and even now rules over all of creation as sovereign Lord (the civil kingdom) and over his church as covenant mediator (Christ’s kingdom).

The New Testament repeatedly speaks of Christ as “head of the church” (Ephesians 1:22, 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:19). Christ’s rule over his church is closely related to the mystical union formed between Christ and the church, which the Scriptures describe as his body (1 Corinthians 12:27). Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, so it has no flag, no world headquarters, and no catchy logo. But it is present wherever Christ’s people gather to hear God’s word proclaimed and to receive the sacraments (Romans 14:17). This kingdom is identical to that which the New Testament repeatedly calls the “kingdom of God.” This kingdom is a conquering kingdom (Matthew 12:28), but is not tied to cultural, economic, or political institutions (John 18:36). The wicked will not inherit this kingdom (Galatians 5:21), though our own children, seen by the world as “the least of these,” are already members through baptism (Luke 18:16). It is a glorious kingdom (1 Thessalonians 2:12), and despite what some may say, it is a present reality (Matthew 3:2). It is a kingdom, which as the Creed declares, “has no end” (cf. 2 Peter 1:11).

In his threefold office as prophet, priest, and king, Jesus cures our ignorance, he removes our guilt, and he deliver us from our corruption. It is here that we find some of the specifics of what it means for Jesus to be the only mediator of the covenant of grace.