Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Systematic Theology II Final, Part I: Prophet, Priest, and King

My Systematic Theology II class has been so worshipful this semester. I've loved studying the doctrines of creation, providence, and Christology. I was especially taken aback by how much I loved writing my final exam essays...I didn't think I was THAT big of a nerd :) But truly, the questions Dr. Wellum posed were provocative, and I found myself relishing the task of articulating my understanding of the doctrines we studied throughout the semester. I thought I'd share my responses here. So if you've ever wondered precisely what one studies in seminary, this should give you some idea!

Since ancient times the work of Jesus Christ has been seen in terms of the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. Write an essay in which you explain what each of these offices are, how they related to the OT, the biblical basis for each, and their importance for understanding the objective work of Christ.

Understanding the three-fold office of Christ is crucial to understanding His divinity and His final atonement of sin on the Cross. The offices of prophet, priest, and king each disclose telling aspects of Christ’s pre-existent nature and His working in the world. They are not to be seen as separate entities, but as complementary functions in unity with one another in Jesus’ redemptive work.

In the literature of the Tanak, the prophets, or nevi’im, were seen as God’s spokesmen. Hebrew thought contrasts these men with “seers” who foretold the future; a navi was someone who, first and foremost spoke the truth of YHWH’s revelation to the people, often with an emphasis on God’s action still to come. Characteristic of prophetic literature is the “thus sayeth YHWH” that precedes most of the prophetic directives. This phrase reveals that the prophets had authority because of YHWH, who imparted His message and uniquely equipped them to speak it forth. Thus, the people received the Word of the LORD. Jesus follows in this prophetic tradition when He says, “You have heard it said” (Matthew 5-7), referring to the Deuteronomic and prophetic traditions. Several times throughout the Sermon on the Mount, He follows these allusions with “But I say to you…” (Matthew 5-7). This repeated phrase reveals that as the Son of God, Jesus’ authority is His own. The writer of Hebrews makes this connection, with an emphasis on Christ’s authority as a member of the Godhead (Hebrews 1:1-2).

In fact, Jesus is not only the authoritative prophet; He is the very Word of God (John 1:1-3). My friends at the messianic synagogue I attend in Richmond, Virginia celebrate that scripture in a beautiful way: each Shabbat as the Torah scrolls are danced through the aisles, and especially on Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday designated specifically for rejoicing over the gift of God’s Word, Messianic Jews touch the scrolls and then kiss their hands out of reverence for the God who speaks powerfully to His people. They praise God for giving them the scrolls, and all the more for writing the Torah on their hearts in the person of Jesus Christ. The man who explained this to me on Simchat Torah (which was also my first Shabbat) said with both tenderness and urgency, “Yeshua has become our Torah! The Torah dwells among us!” So, Jesus is not only the speaker of the Word, He is the Word, the law engraved upon the hearts of the New Covenant recipients (Jeremiah 31:31-33)!

Just as God in the persons of the Trinity appointed prophets to speak to the people in ancient culture, so Jesus does not depart from the earth without appointing New Testament “prophets” [the apostles] who will continue to speak His truth to the people. During His earthly ministry, He appointed these apostles to drive out demons (Mark 3:15) and to heal diseases and sickness (Matthew 10:1). Finally, He commissioned them to “go and make disciples of all nations” upon His own authority (Matthew 28:19). Even more significantly, Jesus imparted the Holy Spirit to the Church and ensured that the New Testament Scriptures would be written.

In the office of priest, Jesus continues another important Jewish tradition established by God in antiquity. The high priest’s primary function was to make atonement for the sins of the people, most notably on the Day of Atonement. The tradition surrounding Yom Kippur is explained in Leviticus 16. Aaron, the first High Priest of the Levitical order, was to enter the sanctuary with “a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering” (v. 3). Then, at the entrance to the Most Holy Place, he was to cast lots for two goats from the Israelite community (vv. 7-8). One goat was to be slaughtered as a sin offering for the people, and one was to be chased into the desert as a scapegoat. Only on this one day each year was this one ambassador for the whole of Israel allowed to enter into the Most Holy Place, the space behind the temple veil (symbolic of God’s presence). This was also the only time the high priest was permitted to utter God’s sacred name, YHWH, another expression of His eternal presence.

The allusions to this passage in the New Testament narratives of Christ’s atoning death on the Cross are numerous. Jesus can be likened to both goats—the one whose blood was spilt for the forgiveness of the masses, and the one who was chased outside of the city. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “the high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (Hebrews 13:11-13). Just as Aaron was to cast lots for the lives of the goats, so the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus cast lots for his clothes. Most significantly, Matthew records that at the exact moment Jesus gave up His spirit, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51). The significance in light of Leviticus 16 is weighty: because of the atoning death of Christ on the Cross, there is no longer a physical place to bring the sin offering, no place to utter HaShem (“the Name”). The Most Holy Place is now located within the hearts of those who are made into a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9); we are now the temple of God, where His Spirit is to dwell (1 Corinthians 3:16). Our great High Priest finished the atonement once and for all. He is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29).


As King, Jesus fulfills the Messianic prophecies and the Jewish expectation for a leader who would vindicate Israel, although He fulfilled these promises quite differently than the Jewish nation would have liked. In Jewish thought, the Day of Judgment was to be both terrible and joyful. On that Day, YHWH would come to fulfill the Torah (Jeremiah 31:31-33) and to right every wrong because of his wrath and justice. Enter Jesus. And this is the significance of Jesus’ entire ministry, but especially of what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount.

On the topic of Kingdom living, Dallas Willard and others have pointed out that while the popular NIV quotes Jesus saying, “the Kingdom of God is near” (Mark 1:15, Luke 10:9-11; 21:32), a better translation of the phrase in Greek might be “the Kingdom of God is here.” Taken together, the two translations emphasize the already-not-yet aspect of the Kingdom: Jesus has come and ushered in a new age by His fulfillment of the law (Matthew 5:17), calling His followers to a new way of life in the here-and-now; at the same time, we are still awaiting the consummation of the eternal Kingdom when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess” (Romans 14:11). This is confirmed by the various Scriptures referring to “the last days.” The prophet Hosea and others mention “the last days,” saying things like, “afterward the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days” (Hosea 3:5). Surely it is not a stretch to say that the reference to David (who by this time had long been dead) is an allusion to the coming descendent of David, the long-awaited Messiah. It is no wonder the writer of Hebrews says, “but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). Jesus, a member of the Davidic line, is the King of this already-not-yet Kingdom.

This King is the one who “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Our Servant-King reigns there now, and His Kingdom will finally be consummated when the Saints all shall see Him reigning there and rejoice, “to Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13).

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