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Friday, December 30, 2011

All Things In Christ: Jesus Christ as Both Agent and Content of His Threefold Ministry

For many ages, God in dealing with His covenant people Israel sent them prophets who would teach spiritual truths of God's revelation as well as set before them the covenant sanctions divinely appointed in God's Law for covenant faithfulness and obedience to the Law or for unfaithfulness and disobedience to the Law.

God also appointed priests in Israel who would uniquely function to act on behalf of the covenant people in offering worship to God in the tabernacle (and later the temple), especially in the form of animal sacrifices. They would also represent God to the people in declaring people's sins atoned for once the appropriate sacrifices had been given, or declaring people ceremonially clean once the appointed washings and sacrifices had been made on behalf of someone who had become ceremonially unclean.

Moreover, God eventually raised up a number of kings in Israel, who were to rule with righteousness and integrity over the people, proclaiming and executing their royal decrees and judgments with equity and in accordance with God's revealed will in His Law. There was almost always a close connection between the uprightness of Israel's king and the spiritual state of the nation as a whole: when the king was wicked, the people often followed suit in neglecting God's Law and falling into gross idolatry; when the king was upright and for the most part sought to follow God's Law, the people respected the king, lived in peace, defeated their enemies at war, and worshipped the true God alone (even though there were definitely exceptions to this general principle).

All of these leaders acting in their distinct offices shared a special anointing of the Spirit of God in order to help them perform their tasks in Israel. By the power of the Spirit, the Word of the Lord came to the prophets, and the Spirit enabled them to speak boldly on behalf of God, and even to perform miraculous signs and wonders at times. The Levitical priests were ceremonially anointed with the blood of animal sacrifices, symbolizing the anointing of the Holy Spirit that came upon them and gave them the authority to perform the tasks of sacrifice and other services in the temple. The kings, and even some of the earlier judges of Israel, also received an anointing of the Holy Spirit that was supposed to enable them to rule well. Therefore we often read of David referring to king Saul as "God's anointed."

In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus Christ fulfills all three of these offices as God's Messiah. It is not surprising, then, to learn that "Messiah" actually means God's "Anointed One." When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit came down upon Him in a unique way in order to empower Him for His public ministry (Mt. 3:16; Mk 1:20; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32). In fact, Jesus received the Spirit without measure (cf. the most probable interpretation of John 3:34 in context) in order that He, in the operation of His human nature apart from independent use of the powers of His divine nature, may be for us the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King sent from God.

We understand that just as God promised in Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18:18, He has sent His final, eschatological prophet in the person of His own Son, Jesus. That much is clear from Hebrews 1:1-2, where we read that "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son..." We also read in Matthew 21, in the parable of the landowners, that Jesus clearly compares Himself to the landowner's son who was sent only after the landowner had sent several other slaves to the vine-growers to gather the produce, only to be beaten, stoned, and killed--a clear reference to the prophets of old in Israel. The woman at the well in John 4, after hearing Jesus describe her marital history despite her never having known Jesus, correctly identifies Jesus as being at least a prophet (John 4:19).

In the New Testament we also read about Jesus being our great High Priest. Nowhere is this clearer than the book of Hebrews. At what is arguably the "crown" of the argument in the book of Hebrews, which describes and defends the ministry of Jesus as our divine and human sympathizer and high priest, in 8:1 we read, "Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,"

Finally, at a number of points in the New Testament, we see a picture of Jesus as the great Lord, King, and ruler of all things. In Philippians 2, we read that one day everyone will confess Jesus as universal Lord (kyrios). In Revelation 19, we read of Jesus as the "King of kings" and "Lord of lords" (19:16) as well as the "Alpha and Omega" and "first and last" (22:13). When questioned by Pilate as to His kingship, Jesus replies "You say correctly that I am a king" (John 18:37). Other passages about Jesus' lordship and kingship could be multiplied, especially in light of the fact that the "kingdom of God" is associated with the lordship of Jesus, and the New Testament is replete with references to the kingdom of God, or "kingdom of Christ" or "kingdom of His beloved Son" (cf. Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 1:13).

So we see from a variety of texts that Jesus clearly expands and fulfills in His own person all three of these Old Testament offices, as the mediator between God and men, and as God's anointed Messiah.

What is even more amazing than this, though, is that what we have seen so far does not exhaust Christ's involvement in God's ministry to His people as mediator in these three offices. So far we have seen that Christ is the agent of--that is, the one doing all of the things that prophets, priests, and kings did in ancient Israel. But Christ is much more than that. He is also the direct content of the ministry carried out in each office.

With respect to the office of prophet, Jesus is not only the One who perfectly speaks and reveals the clearest revelation of God's truth; Jesus is also Himself God's eschatological Word and the focus of His own teaching. This is one reason Jesus is called the Word, or the Word of God, in places like John 1:1 and Revelation 19:13. Jesus' public teaching ministry was focused on explaining the Old Testament Scriptures, and we read in multiple places that the revelation of God in the Old Testament is Christo-centric. For example, the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 encounter the resurrected Christ, and were prevented from recognizing Him until He opened up all the Scriptures beginning with Moses and all the prophets, showing them how all things in those writings pointed forward to Him and His saving work. In the gospel of John, moreover, most of Jesus' encounters with the apostate Jewish religious leaders focus on issues of His own identity as the unique Son of God. This is true especially of chapters 5, 8, and 10. Therefore, whether teaching from the Old Testament about Himself, teaching with His own fresh words about His identity, or simply going about the other aspects of His Messianic mission, Jesus is both the eschatological prophet of God and the personification of the very Word of God Himself.

With respect to the office of priest, we have already seen that Jesus is our great High Priest who shares in our humanity and sympathizes with us in our weakness. However, we must also understand that Jesus, as our High Priest, is One who makes sacrifice to God on our behalf in order to atone for our sins, and this sacrifice is not another animal or human being outside of Himself. Rather, Jesus Christ as our great High Priest offers His very own life on the altar of Calvary as a final sacrifice for our sins. Pure and undefiled, He is the perfect fulfilment of the typological Paschal Lamb (1st Corinthians 5:8). In Hebrews 10:10 we read, "By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." In Romans 8, Jesus is described as being sent as a sin offering for us, in the likeness of human flesh. In the prophetic words of Isaiah 53, we read of God's promise to His suffering Servant (fulfilled in Jesus) that He would see His offspring and prolong His days on the condition that "He would render Himself as a guilt offering" (v.10b).

With respect to the office of king, Jesus doesn't merely rule distantly over many subjects, making royal decrees to be carried out (although it is true that His people in a sense act as "vice-regents" over Creation with Him). Rather, it is in Jesus Himself that all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). In Hebrews 1 we read that Jesus Himself actually upholds all things by the Word of His power (v.3). There may also be an idea similar to Colossians 1:17 latent in John's use of the language of "Word" ("Logos") in the gospel of John. After all, it is likely that John is adopting language that would be very meaningful to both ancient Greeks and ancient Jews in helping to describe who exactly the Son of God is in His divinity and as God's creative agent. The Greeks would have understood "Logos" to mean something like an "overarching organizing principle or power governing the whole cosmos." The Jews would have probably associated it with the personified "Wisdom" of God from sections of Jewish wisdom literature like Proverbs 8 where "Wisdom" was with God in the beginning and was the agent through which God created the world. Both the Jewish and Greek view fall short of the fullness of John's meaning, since by "Logos" John was referring to the personal, eternal Son of God who was both a distinct person from and a sharer in the divinity of the one Creator God the Father, as well as the One who "became flesh, and dwelt among us," (John 1:14). Nevertheless, the point would have been understood: Jesus, the "Logos" of God is not only the personal, ruling King of all the cosmos, but is also One who sovereignly exercises and functions as the power that organizes and upholds all Creation. Together with the Father and the Spirit, it is only in Him that we "live and move and exist" (Acts 17:28).

Therefore we see that in all three offices--that of prophet, priest, and king--Jesus Christ is both the agent and the content of His ministry. As God's ultimate Anointed One, He is both the Giver and the Given. He reflects God the Father's self-giving nature perfectly in His redemptive mediation.

No wonder union with the person of Christ Himself is such a central soteriological category for Paul and the other New Testament writers, as well as for contemporary Reformed theologians. No wonder Paul can talk about things like "the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth" (Ephesians 1:10). And no wonder we are to entreat each other to worship and give thanks to the exalted Christ all the more every day for our salvation and continued fellowship with Him.

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