Berkouwer-Prophet, Priest and King

Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Occasionally we use it that way, especially when cursing: Jesus H. Christ. There are two brothers whose names are John Crist and James Crist. Both sometimes get mail addressed to J. Christ. We tease them about this.

But, since we will soon celebrate the Christ mass or Christmas, it is important to know that Christ refers to the office of Jesus. He is called the Christ, which means the same thing as the Messiah or the Anointed One.

Before Christmas this year I am reading part of G. C. Berkouwer’s old book, The Work of Christ.

He talks about the office of Christ. Theology has often broken this down into a three-fold office: Christ means prophet, priest, and king. In Hebrew history prophets, priests and kings were often anointed with oil when entering to their offices. So the three-fold office goes along with the title, Christ.

This idea can become dry and formal. Sometimes theology has treated these as though they were Platonic ideals. There is an ideal prophet in heaven or in God’s mind. The historical prophets were flawed, but Jesus fulfilled the ideal role of prophet. In the Hebrew Bible priests and kings also were all too human. But Jesus was not…. Wait! Yes he was human. So is the Platonic notion really the best way to understand this?

If you read my posts on Berkouwer so far you know that he sees the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus as a sequence of humiliation and exaltation. He wants to fit the office of Christ into that framework so that the roles of prophet, priest, and king are dynamic.

There is progress in the office of prophet. This office tends to overshadow the others in modern reflection on Jesus. People tend to emphasize what Jesus said. But Berkouwer does not think the sayings of Jesus can stand in isolation. In the gospels they are bracketed with deeds and signs. The prophets of old also used actions and signs to give power to their words. So what the rabbi of Galilee said in his humiliation becomes more significant as the signs progress from healings to resurrection. In the end we conclude that Jesus not only speaks the truth, but is the truth. And in his exalted post-resurrection position, he anoints the church and its leaders with the spirit of truth. All this is part of his prophetic role.

There is progress in the office of king. People tried to make Jesus king. He rejected this role and told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world. In his humiliation people mocked him with the title, King of the Jews. Pilate had it posted over him as he died as a kind of irony. Yet in his resurrection and ascension, he came into true kingship. This means that he defines what true kingship means. The people wanted to give him earthly military and bureaucratic power. But said he came not to be served, but to serve. Thus, even in his exaltation, he is a servant king.

There is progress in the office of priest. Berkouwer makes the weakest case here. He talks about the Roman Catholic idea of the Mass as a continuing offering and sacrifice to God. He stresses instead that the New Testament, especially the Book of Hebrews, emphasizes that the sacrifice of Jesus was something that only happened once in contrast to the repeated sacrifices of the old priesthood and temple. Berkouwer seems to say that the progress in the doctrine of the priesthood of Christ was not from Calvary to a repeated sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper, but to a recognition that Jesus now applies his one-time sacrifice for the benefit of all people.

I wish Berkouwer had brought up the passage in Colossians 1:24 about Paul making up what was “lacking” in Jesus’ suffering. There is clearly a place for ongoing sacrifice, perhaps not so much formally and ritually in the Lord’s Supper, but through our own service and sacrifice as we offer our selves as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). It seems to me this would fit with Berkouwer’s stress on the style of God’s love as a dialectic of humiliation and exaltation.

I refer you to this traditional Christmas/Epiphany song which interprets the gifts of the Magi as referring to the office of Christ, although it seems to pass by the prophetic role.

Berkouwer’s theme of progress from humiliation to exaltation comes out in the song, which moves from bleeding and dying and the tomb to:

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Sounds through the earth and skies.


May this introduce us to the beauty and devotion of the season this year.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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