As the mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ fulfills and unifies three offices: prophet, by which we are given necessary knowledge; priest, by which we are forgiven and justified resulting in reconciliation; king, by which we have our enmity removed and are subdued to the gracious rule of Christ.
As the mediator between God and his people, Jesus Christ fulfills and unifies three offices that are present yet distinct in the Old Testament. Those who hold the office of prophet are those by whom God’s people are given necessary knowledge about God. Jesus Christ came as the perfect prophet because he is the very word of God himself. Priests are those by whom God’s people are forgiven, justified, and reconciled to God. Jesus came as the perfect priest because it is by his sacrificial death and ongoing life that we are reconciled to God. The kings of Israel were charged with carrying out God’s rule on earth. Now, Jesus reigns as king over all of creation and exercises God’s reign perfectly as God. These three offices were first clearly outlined and described by John Calvin and have served as an organizing principle for the ministry and person of Christ in later confessions and catechisms.
A Biblical Foundation
The Person of Christ in his incarnation logically and ontologically precedes his work as prophet, priest, and king. The eternal person of the Son of God, uncreated, infinite, sharing equally the essence of deity with the Father and the Holy Spirit, by means of an inexplicable miracle embraced the nature of humanity into his person. Thus the eternal existed simultaneously as the temporal, the uncreated as the created, the infinite as the finite, the immutable as one who would increase in “wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). In short, Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. In one person, a covenantally representative person, God dwelt with us, as us. While nothing could diminish the impressiveness of the incarnation as an act of power, wisdom, infinite intelligence, unsurpassable humiliation, and sublime beauty—an act that in itself should prompt worship (as it did on the night of the birth of Jesus)—it was also a necessary transaction for the full redemption of God’s elect. As Anselm argued with such acuity in the eleventh century, the incarnate Son of God was and is the only person who could bring full satisfaction to the honor of God rendering the merciful act of salvation fully commensurate with his perfect justice.
The specific functions, or assigned offices, necessary for this work of restoration appeared in the Old Testament in the offices of prophet, priest and king. By one we are given necessary knowledge, by another we are forgiven and justified resulting in reconciliation, and by the third we have our enmity removed and are subdued to the gracious rule of Christ. The importance of words for the whole of deliverance may be seen from God’s call to Moses as the first of the prophets. Moses’s fear arose from his lack of fluency and God said, “Who made man’s mouth? … Now then, go, and I, even I will be with your mouth” (Exod. 4:11–12). Though none was authorized to anoint Moses as a prophet, that the prophetic role was considered as arising from an anointing of God is seen in Elijah’s anointing of Elisha (1 Kgs. 19:16). The prophetic work called for the Spirit to fall suddenly and intensely on the prophets to utter words of great consequence concerning judgment (Ezek. 34:1–10; Nahum; Hab. 1:5–11), comfort (Isa. 40:1–2, 27–31; Zeph. 3:14–20), interpretation (Amos 4:6–13), or anticipation of future events (Jer. 23:5–8; Dan. 10:10–17).
As Samuel established Saul as the first king of Israel and made his farewell speech to Israel, twice he referred to Saul as “His [the Lord’s] anointed” (1 Sam. 12: 3, 5). As David learned of the death of Saul he called him “the Lord’s anointed” (2 Sam. 1:14, 16). David himself had refused to kill Saul for he was “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 26:11, 23). Samuel anointed David as king (1 Sam. 16:13). Elijah anointed Hazael king over Aram and at the same time anointed Jehu king over Israel (1:15–16).
The anointing of the priests, who are responsible for offering the entire array of sacrifices, was a matter of specifically revealed ceremony: “You shall anoint them, consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister to me as priests” (Exod. 28:41). This anointing is seen as the ultimate indication of unity, joy, and pleasantness, “like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes … life forevermore” (Ps. 133: 2– 3). In the redemptive work, therefore, we will find the point of unity for all of these offices.
The prophets saw the coming One as anointed by the Spirit to fulfill all that God required and that the elect needed for a true knowledge, a saving knowledge, and a submissive knowledge of God. “Behold!” Isaiah wrote as the words of the Lord: “My servant whom I uphold, my Elect One in whom my soul delights! I have put my Spirit upon him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:1). This one so anointed by the Spirit will redeem (42:6–7), reveal (42:9), and reign (42:13).
Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, because each of these roles is an anointed role. Whereas, in the Old Testament, the roles were held by different persons, Jesus the Christ united them, for “he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3: 34–36). The offices of prophet (“utters the words of God”), king (“has given all things into his hands”), and priest (“whoever believes in the Son has eternal life”) are seen in this short text. That he has been given the Spirit without measure means that these offices of anointing will be absolutely fulfilled and perfected in the person and work of Jesus Christ. John emphasized Christ’s prophetic role in his prologue by emphasizing that “the Word was God,” and “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” and that, though “no man has seen God at any time,” this divine Word, who lives forever “at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (John 1:1–18). His priesthood runs throughout the book but is highlighted in his laying down his life for the sheep (John 10:14–18) and in his being anointed for burial (John 12:1–7). His office of king finds clear expression in Jesus’s announcement to Pilate that he is indeed a king, but not of this world (John 18:33–38).
The writer of Hebrews concisely summarized the succession of Jesus to all of these offices in his carrying the meaning of each to perfection. Though God spoke in the past through the prophets in a variety of ways and times, in the last days “he has spoken to us by his Son.” The Son is perfectly fit to speak because he is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” His priestly work can have nothing added to it as indicated by the phrase, “[after] making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” These words also indicate that the completed work of priest culminates and perfects his messianic assignment by fitting the incarnate Son of God to be the Redeemer-King: “But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’” All of this is for the “sake of those who are to inherit salvation.” (Heb. 1:1–3, 8, 13). The relation between Christ’s perfected priesthood and his kingly rule is seen again in 9:25–28 and 10: 8–15. Particularly striking is the argument in chapter 7 where Christ, like Melchizedek, is seen as King of Righteousness and King of Peace in his perfected priestly office under special appointment from God: “For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of truth, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (Heb. 7:28).
Indeed, Peter recognized Jesus as the prophet about whom Moses spoke, “The Lord will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he says to you.” This prophet also was priest and king for the words that “his Christ would suffer” was fulfilled, and by his death and resurrection “the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health.” This priestly prophet has now been received into heaven until he comes as potentate to “restore all things” (Acts 3:13–21). Throughout 1 Peter, these themes lie beneath the words as a presupposition for Peter’s argument. Chapter 3, verses 18–22, condense these themes by showing that Christ as a priest has “suffered once for all for sins.” In his ascension after the resurrection he issued a prophetic proclamation of victory over all opposing spirits. Upon entering into heaven, he demonstrated this perfect victory being seated at the “right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
In the last scene of Revelation we see the fullness of prophetic revelation, the eternal consequences of his priestly work, and the gracious kingly rule bound up in the Christ: “No longer will there be anything accursed (priest), but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it (king), and … they will see his face … for the Lord God will be their light” (prophet) (Rev. 22:3–5).
Systematic and Confessional Syntheses
This biblical synthesis of Christ’s offices found its first clear and extended expression in Calvin’s Institutes (II. xv). He introduced the discussion with this heading: “To know the purpose for which Christ was sent by the Father, and what he conferred upon us, we must look above all at three things in him: the prophetic office, kingship, and priesthood.” Calvin asserted that the “minds of the pious had always been imbued with the conviction that they were to hope for the full light of understanding only at the coming of the Messiah” (see John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:495). In this light, Calvin called the Christ “the fullness and culmination of all revelation,” for “the prophetic dignity in Christ leads us to know that in the sum of doctrine as he has given it to us all parts of perfect wisdom are contained” (496).
Calvin insisted that Christ’s kingship is “spiritual in nature.” The line of the earthly Davidic kingship diminished “until it came to a sad and shameful end;” but in Jesus Christ the promise that “his line shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me,” found it perfect fulfillment (497). The spirituality of his reign means that his blessings he sovereignly grants are eternal and transcend all the pleasures and blights of earthly riches, peace, delights of the flesh, and temporal safety. “Our king will never leave us destitute, but will provide for our needs until, our warfare ended, we are called to triumph” (498–99). As king, Christ not only places all his enemies under his feet and judges them with a rod of iron breaking them like a potter’s vessel, but he defends the church, gives to it all that she needs including the presence and power of the Spirit, and leads it finally to eternal life. The “everlasting preservation of the church” is founded on “the eternal throne of Christ” who has been appointed to this office and this certain victory by “God’s immutable decree” (497–98).
Calvin summarized Christ’s priestly office in terms of “reconciliation and intercession.” As the priests under the old covenant did, so Christ had to come forward with an expiatory sacrifice to “obtain God’s favor for us and appease his wrath” (501). Christ in his priestly work has removed the transgression and sins which debarred us from any access to God. In his death, the “efficacy and benefit of his priesthood” reach us. By his intercession, not only do we receive assurance of prayer heard, an ever-favorable Father, and cleansed consciences, but we are received as priests in him. Even we may offer sacrifices in prayer and praises that are a sweet-smelling savor unto God.
Millard Erickson discusses the offices of Christ under the nomenclature of “functions” and uses the terms “revealing, ruling, and reconciling” (see Erickson, Christian Theology, 779–797). The revelatory role of Christ comes in his pre-incarnate work as the Logos spoke through the prophets and in theophanies. In his incarnate state he taught the word and was Himself the word, the fullness of the godhead in bodily form. After his ascension he sent the Spirit to complete the revelation of the character of his redemptive work. In his return, Jesus will give another revelation when “all barriers to a full knowledge of God and of the truths of which Christ spoke will be removed” (785).
The kingship of Christ is “the rule of Christ.” Christ’s rule is seen in his creating and preserving the world. He rules in the church, particularly as his people follow his lordship. He rules now in an exalted state which will be revealed at his return when “all will be under his rule, whether willingly and eagerly, or unwillingly and reluctantly” (787).
Christ’s priesthood is “the reconciling work of Christ.” Erickson’s initial emphasis focuses on the intercessory ministry of Christ. In John 17, Jesus interceded for his disciples and all who would believe because of their word. He interceded for Peter in particular, that his faith would not fail. Presently, he intercedes for his people on the basis of their justification, that they will be forgiven of their daily sins, and that they will be more perfectly sanctified. Erickson devotes three chapters to his discussion of the atonement, the crowning work of Jesus’s priestly ministry.
Confessions and catechisms that follow in the Reformed tradition contain sections on these messianic offices of Jesus. The Westminster Confession and catechisms give clear summaries of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. The Westminster introduces the article on the Mediator, “It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man; the Prophet, Priest, and King.” The Second London Confession of the Baptists adds after “Son,” the phrase “according to the Covenant made between them both.” The Westminster Confession has 8 paragraphs in the chapter, while the Baptist version adds two paragraphs, specifically devoted to Christ’s offices. “This office of Mediator between God and man is proper only to Christ, who is the Prophet, Priest, and King of the Church of God; and may not be either in whole or any part thereof transferred from him to any other. This number and order of Offices is necessary; for in respect of our ignorance, we stand in need of his prophetical Office; and in respect of our alienation from God, and imperfection of the best of our services, we need his Priestly office, to reconcile us, and present us acceptable to God: and in respect of our averseness, and utter inability to return to God, and for our rescue, and security from our spiritual adversaries, we need his Kingly office, to convince, subdue, draw, uphold, deliver, and preserve us to his Heavenly Kingdom.”
- A. A. Hodge, “The Offices of Christ”
- Confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and beyond
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. See also here.
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. See chapter 29 and his bibliography of theologies that have sections on this subject.
- R. C. Sproul, “The Three-Fold Office of Christ”