Prophet-Priest-King

A message delivered to the Fellowship of Mere Christianity, July 23, 2014 at City Church, Corpus Christi, Texas

(Heb. 1:1–3)

Introduction

In his classic Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis compares the communion among Christians to a commodious house with a great hall. Adjoining the great hall were a series of rooms. Lewis says that “mere Christianity” is the great hall where all Christians congregate and mingle to discuss their abundant commonalities. Then they drift into separate rooms, their own churches and denominations, where they discuss their particular distinctives. In many ways, the FMC is the great hall.

The name Fellowship of Mere Christianity was the brainchild of Dr. Dave Lescalleet. He and I were discussing years ago the need for a fellowship to be grounded in mere Christianity, the great central truths of the Gospel. By God’s grace, we assembled a group at the Dallas airport, and we launched the FMC. Our theological basis is the five Reformation solas (or solae). From the beginning, we stressed deference and accountability.

Our church and I have been privileged to be a part of this group. Many of you here I first met through the fellowship. I am profoundly grateful for it. I believe its best days are ahead. I believe there’s a hunger for this kind of fellowship.

Dave has chosen as the theme the Munus Triplex: the threefold work of Jesus Christ: prophet, priest, and king. I’m not sure he could’ve selected a more appropriate theme. This is a traditional way of speaking about our Lord’s work that goes back at least as far as Eusebius. It also was a favorite of John Calvin. There is no place in the Bible where the Munus Triplex is found in such compressed form than here at the beginning of Hebrews. Tonight I want to preach about it, but I want to do it in perhaps a unique way.

First, I will delineate the particular office of our Lord. Then I will tell what it was calculated to accomplish. Finally, I will relate why this office is especially relevant in our present culture.

Let me begin by noting that our forebears saw the Munus Triplex as the cure to mankind’s greatest ailment: sin. The entire work of Jesus Christ was necessitated by the Fall. To put it bluntly: The Fall is the problem, and Jesus Christ is the solution. Sin is the disease, and our Lord is the cure.

Priest

This is an apt segue to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. We read in our passage that he made “purification for sins” (v. 3). What is the role of a priest? A priest is a mediator. He represents God to men and men to God. In the creation account we read that God would come down to commune with Adam and Eve in the form of wind (the Spirit, Gen. 3:8). God would come, as it were, face to face with man and woman. But when they sinned, they instinctively knew that they couldn’t encounter God in fully exposed openness. That’s the main reason that they made skins to cover themselves. It wasn’t from some sexual embarrassment. It was knowing instinctively that sin separated them from God.

The old covenant

This is why it was necessary after the Fall to offer sacrifices to God. God established sacrifice as a way to clear the road back to him. The sin problem had to be taken care of, and the way that he took care of it was by death — a sacrificial death (Lev. 17:11; Ezek. 18:20). And this is why God established priests in Israel. Their job was to offer the blood of the animal on the altar before God to appease his righteous judgment. When man’s sin was atoned for, that is, when it was paid for, man could come back into communion with God.[1]

The new covenant

The book of Hebrews teaches that all of the animals sacrificed in the Old Testament were simply temporary means of atonement. They all pointed to the one, final, enduring sacrifice: Jesus Christ himself. The Old Testament priests offered sacrifices for Israel and for their own sins. But Jesus, who was not a sinner, offered his own body as a sacrifice on the Cross (Heb. 7:20–27). He was the priest who was his own sacrifice. This means that Jesus Christ is the only way to get back into communion with God. Jesus in his death is the cure to man’s estrangement from God.

Whatever happened to sin?

Now today, we often don’t think in these terms. Even when we consider sin (and most people no longer even believe in sin), we think of sin’s pollution or corruption — all of the bad things it does to us. Of course, sin does pollute and corrupt. It poisons our mind and will and emotions and friendships and family and vocation and culture and all of life. We think of obvious examples: Drunkenness and drug addiction and sexually transmitted diseases and body mutilation and envy and covetousness. But if we think only of the pollution of sin, we become very man-centered. Sin is bad because it hurts me.

The greatest problem is that our sin separates us from God. God created us for communion with him in the Trinity (Jn. 17:20–26). The Father and Son and Spirit relished their communion so much that they wanted to share it — they wanted more and more people to commune with them. Sin breaks that communion; it breaks God’s heart (Gen. 6: 5–6). Sin is so bad because it hurts and offends God, our Creator.

But it also brings us under God’s righteous judgment. In Romans 1 we learn that God’s anger is revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness. God created man to love and commune with him, but man turned his back on God, and man today turns his back on God. Therefore, when we sin, we are acting in ways for which we were never created. We are destroying God’s beautiful design. This is why he threatens judgment to all those who refuse to turn to Jesus Christ. God judges sin because sin wrecks God’s lovely design for man.

But Jesus is the cure. He suffered on the cross for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet. 3:18). When we trust in him, his righteousness becomes ours (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the only way to avoid God’s judgment. Jesus is the cure for his Father’s judgment on sinful humanity. He is the cure for his own broken heart and his own holy anger at what man has done to his creation.

It’s vitally important to declare this truth today because so few people in our culture even believe in sin. Or if they do, they redefine sin:

Secular people [so we read in USA Today] still believe there’s sin, judgment and punishment, says sociologist Barry Kosmin, a research professor in public policy and law and director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

It’s just a different list of sinners than religious traditions teach.

“What is unacceptable has changed,” Kosmin observes. “Racism and sexual harassment, which were not sins in the past, are now. Adultery and addiction are just bad or sad behavior. And commercial sex is a no, but breaking the bonds of marriage is not.

“Secularism is situational without fundamental, universal rules. Explanations are kosher. Mitigating circumstances, too. But if people are held guilty, the punishment, of course, has to be in this world, not the next. Secular people don’t burn in hell, they burn in the court of public opinion.”

Many people simply don’t believe in sin as such. They believe that we fail, and many of them believe that our problems and ethics are biologically determined. They are naturalistic determinists. The chemicals and electrical impulses in our body make us act as we do, and if this is the truth, then we need drugs or other naturalistic impulses to help us to act the way that we should. In the end, this means that man is not really responsible for his actions.

Amid this mellow moral apathy we must proclaim a foundational truth of the Gospel: man is a sinner; he has broken God’s law; he therefore stands under God’s judgment. It’s only when people come under a deep conviction of their sin and God’s judgment that they will understand that Jesus is the cure. But if they don’t recognize that they are sick, they won’t look for a cure.

The law prepares for the gospel

This is why many in the Reformation tradition taught that we should preach the Law and then the Gospel.[2] People aren’t ready for the good news of salvation until they are painfully aware of the bad news of God’s judgment on their sin. But once sinners have understood God’s judgment, they then can understand how Jesus Christ came as our priest to suffer God’s judgment on himself. He is the great high priest, the greatest priest of all (Heb. 4:14), because he’s the one who alone can bring us back into fellowship with God. Then, God is no longer our enemy (Rom. 5:10; Jas. 4:4). His judgment no longer hangs over us. We are now his children whom he will never abandon. Jesus as the priest makes this happen.

Prophet

Jesus Christ is also the prophet. “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (vv. 1­–2). God didn’t create man with total, built-in direction. Man needs direction from the outside. This means that even before the Fall, God had to reveal to man how to live, what to do and what not to do (Gen. 1:28–30; 2:15–17). After the Fall, you can only imagine how necessary this external revelation is. Imagine how much external direction man needs now that his mind is clouded by sin and rebellion and corruption!

The epistle to the Hebrews tells us that God spoke during the Old Testament times in various ways and by prophetic utterance. God raised up men (and sometimes women) to speak for him. They were God’s mouthpieces.[3] The prophets spoke the very living word of the living God. The Hebrews were often surrounded by confusion and chaos and competing words. Into this cacophony of voices, God would usually send a prophet. The voice of God by the mouth of the prophet spoke the truth in the middle of this deluge of lies.

But just as in the case of the old covenant priests, so the Old Testament prophets pointed to one final Prophet. Moses, in fact, predicted Jesus, the Prophet (Dt. 18:15–18; 34:10; Ac. 3:22; 7:37). Jesus wasn’t only the final, definitive, priestly sacrifice. He was the final, definitive, revelatory prophet. Jesus is God’s final, objective word to man.

The prophetic word

Where do we find his word? In the Bible, of course. Jesus spoke many, many words that aren’t found in the Bible, but the words of Jesus that God intended to be preserved to the end of time are in the Holy Scriptures. And since Jesus confirmed both the Old Testament (Mt. 5:17–19; Lk. 24:44) as well as his accredited representatives, the apostles (Jn. 16:13; 1 Tim. 6:1–3; Jude 17), we can take this canonical revelation as the final word of Jesus Christ.

Many words

And it’s a good thing, too. Our age of postmodernity and globalism and multiculturalism is an age of cacophonic voices — many truths. In Western culture, politicians try to commandeer the authoritative word. They enjoy the power of coercion (in biblical terms, the sword [Rom. 13:]), so at times their word can be sobering indeed. They decree that you must hand over your legitimately gotten wealth, or that men may marry men and women may marry women, or that unborn babies can be butchered in the womb. The state speaks a powerful word. Unfortunately, too often it’s an antinomian and apostate word.

Then there is the authoritative word from the major secular universities. That’s often an authoritative decree issued in the form of speech codes. You can be charged as a racist or sexist or homophobe if you transgress the precise language crafted by these treasonous intellectuals. They see their word as final and authoritative.

Libertarians counter with the authoritative word of the naked individual. “I reinvent my own life, I create my own reality, and I speak the only authoritative word for my life.” These libertarians are often the mirror image of the statists. Libertarians want free markets and free sex.

As our world becomes more globally networked, barriers to these competing words evaporate. Americans become enamored of Asian religion, and Asians becoming enamored of American technology. The Chinese use iPhones and Americans convert to Buddhism. There is no right and wrong way, only many different and equally permissible ways.

Man, let us recall, must be saved not just from a rebellious will and emotions but also a rebellious intellect. This is the intellectual challenge of the Gospel. The gospel tells us that we hold bad ideas, not just that we engage in bad actions. In fact, generally we engage in bad actions because we hold bad ideas. The gospel compels us to get rid of our bad ideas and submit to God’s truth in his word. The sinful world is filled with bad ideas, bad words, that lead to bad morality.

Into this moral morass the word of Jesus Christ thunders: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The word of the prophet Jesus is the authoritative divine word, and all words that conflict with it are wrong.

King

Jehovah God was the King of Israel, but the Jews cried out for a king like the surrounding nations, and God gave them one. That king, Saul, with a bitter failure. But God named his replacement, and that king, David, was (mostly) a godly man. God promised to David that he would keep a king from David’s lineage on his throne in perpetuity as long as those kings obeyed (2 Sam. 7). Most importantly, he promised a one great and final King. We learned from the New Testament that this King was none other than Jesus Christ (Ac. 2:22–41).

We learn also from the New Testament that Jesus was to be King not only of the Jews, but over the entire world. In other words, Jesus Christ is God’s mediatorial ruler of the universe (Eph. 1:20–23).

Man needs a king because man was never meant to be autonomous. Moment by moment we were meant to depend on God (Prov. 3:5–6). But sin complicated this dependence. When the serpent deceived Eve, he pressed her to be her own authority. She would decide for herself what was right and wrong. This was mankind’s first attempt at autonomy, and it plunged the entire world into sin.

Jesus must be King because man isn’t capable of ruling himself. Man is called to rule the rest of creation under God’s authority (Gen. 1:26–28), but man was never meant to be autonomous. And once man sinned, his rebellion constituted a lust for autonomy. Man now sets his own autonomy against God’s authority.

Increasingly, Western culture has drifted away from authority of any kind. Of course, there was evil and corrupt authority in the past, and the Enlightenment world rebelled against it: bad kings and priests and even fathers. But the godly alternative to bad authority is good authority, not no authority. And all legitimate authority derives from God (Rom. 13:1). In our world, Jesus is that authority.

The heavy burden of autonomy

Modern man lusts for autonomy, but this autonomy comes with a heavy price tag. Since autonomy wrecks the divine design, it gradually destroys man.

When man chases autonomy, he wants his own way at all costs. This means trampling other people. There is large-scale, autonomous trampling and small-scale autonomous trampling. Autonomous tyrants care nothing for their citizens but treat them as nothing more than instruments of their own power and greed. This autonomy afflicted every tyrant from the ancient pharaohs to Stalin and Kim Jong-Il. But it’s the same autonomy that afflicts small-scale tyrants — people like us. Perhaps we use people for our own ends. We don’t understand that people are an end in themselves. The young man uses a young woman for his own sexual pleasure. An employer uses an employee to enrich himself without caring about that employee’s family. Church leaders use church members to burnish their credentials. This is small-scale tyranny, and it’s a form of sinful autonomy.

To all of these tyrants, the small-scale tyrants in the family to the more prominent tyrants in the corporate boardroom to the global tyrants and political palaces, Jesus Christ says: “I am King, and there is no other, and you must bow to me.”

Our kingly friend

But, praise God, the good kings of the ancient world not only exercised authority; they felt deeply their responsibility for their subjects. This profound care characterizes King Jesus. He doesn’t rule his people with rigor and harshness but with love and grace. He calls us his friends (Jn. 15:15).

Now a kingly friend is an important friend because he has at his disposal remarkable resources to fulfill his friendship. This friend can do things for us that another friend cannot. This King is sufficiently strong to protect us against all enemies, provide for us in our deepest need, and preserve us all the way to our heavenly home. This isn’t an ordinary friend. He’s a kingly friend, and he employs his kingship to benefit his citizens. To be a citizen of his kingdom is to be a beneficiary of his royal largess.

Ironically, then, when modern men and women turn away from the kingship of Jesus Christ in order to exert their own autonomy, they’re actually turning away from the only one who can provide what they really need. They would rather rule in hell than submit in heaven. They would rather blow up their own life and the lives of everyone around them than bow the knee to Jesus Christ.

But the office of Jesus’ Kingship to his people is a marvelous display of his grace. To the unrepentant and rebellious, this kingship is a great warning: Repent or perish. We either submit to the King willingly, and become his friends, are we submit to the King unwillingly, and we suffer his judgment.

Conclusion: The Munus Triplex Today

Never before in Western culture has the Munus Triplex been more desperately needed. The medieval world essentially understood the kingship of our Lord, and his prophetic office, but were confused about his priestly office. But as a result of the Enlightenment, and romanticism, and more recently postmodernity, each of the three principal offices of Jesus Christ has slowly drifted into the mists of time, even as Jesus himself seems to be drifting into the mists of time.

Only he isn’t, and they aren’t. Humanity is on a collision course with cultural destruction and individual judgment, but the good news is that Jesus Christ — Prophet, Priest, and King — is the cure.

I urge you never to be timid or ashamed in declaring the threefold office of Jesus Christ. If he is the only cure, to refuse to be bold in declaring him is actually to be delinquent in our responsibility to humanity.

And then we learn, much to our chagrin, that the “nice,” inoffensive, non-judgmental Christians are, in fact, the most irresponsible and blameworthy of all.

If Jesus Christ is the cure, we must not withhold the cure to the sick people who need him most.

_________

[1] This is why every departure from substitutionary atonement (see this expose) is a departure from God’s righteousness.

[2] While I disagree with the Lutheran law-gospel distinction, I agree that man must be convicted of his sin before he can trust Jesus Christ as the only cure to his sin. See my Wrongly Dividing the Word.

[3] But without obliterating their own unique personalities.