Jesus Christ is the summit of a long line of prophets, priests, and kings. But unlike all who came before Him, Christ bears all three of these roles and perfectly fulfills them. Today, Barry Cooper describes the glory of Jesus’ threefold office.
We sometimes talk about a president “taking office” or “leaving office”—office meaning a particular role of authority. In the same way, theologians sometimes speak about the offices of Christ: particular roles of authority that Christ fulfils.
In fact, Jesus is often spoken of as holding a threefold office. If you want to be really flashy, the theological Latin is munus triplex. So what are the three offices of authority that Jesus Christ holds?
They are Prophet, Priest, and King.
Jesus’ title Christ itself points towards this. Christ means “Anointed One,” and in the Old Testament, prophets were anointed with oil. Priests were anointed with oil. And kings were anointed with oil too. So the Christ, the Anointed One, was the One anointed for this unique threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King. No one in the Old Testament held these three offices together. But Christ does.
The idea of the threefold office goes all the way back to the fourth-century writer Eusebius of Caesarea, and it was fleshed out later by John Calvin and other Reformed theologians. They pointed out that these three offices—Prophet, Priest, and King—were a kind of connective tissue linking the history of Israel in the Old Testament with the work of Christ in the New Testament.
Just as God’s people in the Old Testament had their prophets, priests, and kings, so in the New Testament God’s people finally meet their ultimate Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus Christ. He is the summit of a long line of prophets, priests, and kings, even the very best of whom were flawed and fallible, and none of whom were all three at once. But Jesus was the fulfillment, the Prophet, Priest, and King par excellence, as the French would say. The earlier prophets, priests, and kings were mere shadows; Christ is the reality to whom they were all pointing.
First, Jesus is the ultimate Prophet. One of the main roles of a prophet in the Old Testament was to declare the Word of God. But Jesus not only declared the Word of God; according to John chapter 1, He is the Word of God. He is literally God’s Word incarnate, God’s Word in the flesh. That’s something you could never say of the Old Testament prophets. In fact, one of the main roles of those prophets was simply to point forward to a better Prophet, the Christ. So Jesus is not only Prophet; He is also the subject of prophecy. As He said Himself, the Scriptures “bear witness about me.”
Second, Jesus is the ultimate Priest. Old Testament priests spoke to God on behalf of the people. They made intercession for God’s people, pleaded for them, and made sacrifices on their behalf, so that their sin could be dealt with. In the New Testament, Jesus is described in similar terms. But He’s so much more than the priests of the Old Testament. He is the Great High Priest. It’s not just that He offers a sacrifice on behalf of His people; He Himself is the sacrifice for the sins of His people. He’s both the offering and the offerer. And unlike the sacrifices that had to be made year after year by the Old Testament priests precisely because they could not actually atone for sin, Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself was made once and for all, because it really does—fully and finally—atone for the sin of His people.
Thirdly, Jesus is the ultimate King. He tells the Pharisees:
The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will [people] say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.
Jesus is telling them that God’s Anointed King is right there, in their very midst, speaking to them directly. Christ is the One who is described in the New Testament as “reigning,” with God the Father putting all things in subjection under His feet. In fact, that was one of the claims that got the early church into so much hot water: they were teaching—in the face of Caesar’s claim to absolute authority—that there is a greater King by the name of Jesus. Jesus Himself, interpreting Psalm 110 for the Pharisees, explained that the Christ is the son of King David, that is, He is descended from King David, and yet He is—according to Psalm 110—“LORD ” over King David. Whoever heard of a king’s son who is lord over the king? But that is exactly the status, the office, of King Jesus. He is the King of all kings, the Lord of all lords.
Question and answer 42 of the Westminster Larger Catechism put it this way: “Our mediator was called Christ, because he was anointed with the Holy Ghost above measure; and so set apart, and fully furnished with all authority and ability, to execute the offices of prophet, priest, and king of his church, in both his humiliation and exaltation.”
So those are the offices of Jesus Christ: the Prophet who was also the Priest who was also the King.