Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Threefold Office of Christ

The Westminster Shorter Catechism follows after John Calvin in making a connection between Christ’s person and Christ’s work by discussing his threefold office. The Catechism says:

Q23. What offices doth Christ execute as our Redeemer?
A23. Christ, as our Redeemer, executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation.
It is important for us to think about the offices of Christ as it helps us to keep his person and work together in our minds. He is not the Christ except as he is the perfect Prophet, Priest, and King and the work that he does is in faithfully executing those three offices. Therefore we need to examine each of these offices in terms of who our Lord is and the work that he has accomplished and still does.

Q24. How doth Christ execute the office of a prophet?
A24. Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his Word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.
When the Samaritan woman expresses her expectation that the Christ would come to teach all things (John 4:25) she shows knowledge of the prophetic announcement of the Christ who is sent as a witness and a messenger from the Father (Isa. 9:6; 28:29; 55:4). The writer of Hebrews also picks up on Christ as Prophet:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Heb. 1:1-2)
The writer here says that a new era of revelation has dawned. In the past God spoke to his people by his prophets and other means of revelation. In the present he has now spoken to them by his only Son who brings the fullness of God’s revelation of salvation. Calvin reminds us that this revelation is also linked to the revelatory work of the Spirit of Christ (Isa. 61:1-2; cf. Luke 4:18). Christ’s prophetic work continues as the Spirit illumines the word of Christ and the word is preached to Christ’s people. So because the whole of doctrine is revealed to us by Christ the Prophet we know that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3). As we consider Christ as prophet we are reminded that his Word contains all the things that are necessary for faith and godliness.

Q25. How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?
A25. Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us.
Calvin notes that because God’s righteous wrath is set against sinners for Christ to be a Mediator between us and God he first had to come forward as a sacrifice. Our own prayers are not acceptable to God until God’s wrath against us is removed. God’s wrath cannot be removed until the penalty for our sins has been paid and God’s justice has been satisfied. So we now know that Christ has appeared to put away sin by offering up himself as a sacrifice (Heb. 9:26b). So Christ’s perfect sacrifice answers both of our problems. As he has taken our sin on himself (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24) the penalty is paid and we are now reconciled to God.

Yet we know that Christ’s priestly work is not finished now that he has ascended into heaven. In fact we find that it is precisely as he has ascended into heaven that he is the perfect Mediator and Intercessor on behalf of his people. Now in heaven he always lives to intercede for us (Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:34) and he secures our eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11-12).

Q26. How doth Christ execute the office of a King?
A26. Christ executeth the office of a King, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.
Calvin begins his discussion of Christ’s kingly office by reminding us that it is spiritual in nature and thus is in force for all of eternity. God promises that in his Son he will protect and defend his church (Ps. 89:35-37) and that no enemies may overthrow his Son who is King over the church (Ps. 110:1). Further this spiritual kingship draws the attention of his people to the kingdom that is not of this world (John 18:36) where they are promised eternal life and eternal blessing in the enjoyment of God.

Yet we also know that even as we wait for the consummation of Christ’s spiritual kingdom we enjoy some of the benefits of the kingdom even while we live in this life. As Christ exercises his heavenly rule in the present in anticipation of the great Day of the Lord we can be confident in victory against the spiritual powers that oppose us by Christ’s Spirit (Eph. 6:10ff). Finally, we know that all the glory will go to the King and to the Father. At that last day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Christ is Lord to the glory of God (Phil. 2:10-11). Yet Christ also rules for the good of his people. He is the good and perfect King. Calvin writes: “The Father has given all power to the Son that he may by the Son’s hand govern, nourish, and sustain us, keep us in his care, and help up.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion ed. by John T. McNeill and trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vol. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960) 1:500)

Herman Bavinck helpfully reminds us that Christ did not take up these offices at the time of his incarnation or resurrection but that as the work of redemption is a Trinitarian work that begins immediately after the fall Christ was active as prophet, priest, and king in the Old Testament. Furthermore, we need to remember that though we can distinguish the offices we cannot separate his work and limit to a single office. When the Prophet speaks he does so as the One with the authority of the King and his prayer is that of the Priest. After his exaltation he teaches his church by Word and Spirit, rules the church by the same, and intercedes in the same as a prophetic and priestly expression of his royal will. Thus Bavinck says that Christ “does not just perform prophetic, priestly, and kingly activities but is himself, in his whole person, prophet, priest, and king.” Further:

Therefore Christ, both as the Son and as the image of God, for himself and also as our mediator and savior, had to bear all three offices. He had to be a prophet to know and disclose the truth of God; a priest, to devote himself to God and, in our place, to offer himself up to God; a king, to govern and protect us according to God’s will. To teach, to reconcile, and to lead; to instruct, to acquire, and to apply salvation; wisdom, righteousness, and redemption; truth, love, and power – all three are essential to the completeness of our salvation. In Christ’s God-to-humanity relation, he is a prophet; in his humanity-to-God relation he is a priest; in his headship over all humanity he is a king. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. by John Bolt and trans. by John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 367-8)
So we see that the threefold office of Christ is essential to his person and work on behalf of his people. The Heidelberg Catechism affirms this:

Q31. Why is he called “Christ,” meaning “anointed”?
A31. Because he has been ordained by God the Father and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our chief prophet and teacher who perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God for our deliverance; our only high priest who has set us free by the one sacrifice of his body, and who continually pleads our cause with the Father; and our eternal king, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who guards us and keeps us in the freedom he has won for us.
Further, the Catechism reminds us that all believers have a priestly, prophetic, and kingly office as they are brought into union with Christ by the Spirit through faith and that this is the promise of their eternal reward:

Q32. But why are you called a Christian?
A32. Because by faith I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing. I am anointed to confess his name, to present myself as a living sacrifice of thanks, to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and afterward to reign with Christ over all creation for all eternity.

If you would like to do some more study on this then I recommend John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, Chapters 15-16, Derek Thomas' essay on these chapters in The Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, and pages 364-8 in Volume 3 of Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics.


Richard said...

Wonderful exposition of some tough points. Thanks. I will, personally, however, always have trouble thinking of myself in a kingly role along with Jesus, "reigning with Christ."

Matt Pickens said...

Thanks. Same here. It's a weird thought. But as Charlie was preaching I noticed the promise to the church in Thyatira, "The one who conquers and keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron..." (Rev. 2:26-27a).

That's the same language from the Shiloh prophecy regarding Judah (Gen. 49), the Davidic covenant about David's Son (particularly the Psalms) and Zechariah's Messianic prophecy about the King who rides into Jerusalem (heavily cited and alluded to in Matthew). It's really interesting how Jesus now applies that to the church. I've been meaning to research and write on this.

Unfortunately this is one of three topics I've been trying to get to for a while (aside from actual assignments) and just haven't had time to do it yet.