The Full Canvas
We’ve all been there, whether as a preacher or listener. The drama of the story of Daniel in the lions’ den builds throughout the sermon. The conviction of sin as you walk through the Ten Commandments grows almost overwhelming. The depths of emotion expressed by the psalmist as he cries out for deliverance stirs and unsettles your soul. Where are we going? Will we leave inspired by the courage of Daniel, crushed by the law of God, disturbed by the misery of the psalm? But no—here it comes. Sound the klaxon: it’s time for “The Jesus bit.” We all knew it was coming. We knew we had to get there. Every bit as surprising as Tuesday following Monday, the final five minutes of the sermon remind us again of the penal-substitutionary death of Jesus.
I’ve heard hundreds of sermons like this and preached nearly as many. And, frankly, thank God for each and every one of them. Few of us have the rhetorical skill of a Spurgeon or Whitefield. Whether preaching, leading a Bible study, or teaching a Sunday school class, we’re desperate to be faithful both to the text at hand and the Savior to whom it leads us. Rather a thousand somewhat predictable sermons than a thousand dazzlingly clever but Christ-less messages. Rather a thousand clunky but faithful expositions of penal-substitutionary atonement than a thousand depictions of the cross as a terrible accident. Or, still worse, sermons entirely empty of Christ-crucified.
Yet there are tools at hand to help us see the fuller canvas of Christ’s work. Theologians down the centuries have often spoken of Jesus’s threefold office. Jesus has one office, that of Messiah or Christ. He is the anointed one, the one mediator between God and man, the Savior. But this office has three aspects to it: those of prophet, priest, and king.
The Heidelberg Catechism gives a neat summary:
Question 31: Why is he called “Christ,” meaning “anointed”?
Answer: 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 fully reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our deliverance; our only high priest who has delivered us 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.
The Heidelberg Catechism isn’t engaging in speculative theology here. Jesus’s title, Christ, means anointed, as does its Hebrew counterpart, Messiah. When we read the Old Testament we discover three groups of people are anointed with oil to symbolize their commissioning to an office: prophets, priests, and kings. So David was “messiahed” as king in 1 Samuel 16. Aaron was “messiahed” as priest in Leviticus 8. Elijah was to “messiah” Elisha as prophet in 1 Kings 19 (cf. 1 Chron. 16:22). We might even say that each prophet, priest, and king is, in their limited way, a messiah, a mini-Christ.
As we come to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit takes the categories of prophet, priest, and king that he has already established in Israel’s history and weaves them together to give a glorious portrait of Jesus the Messiah. The official anointing of Jesus comes at his baptism, where he is anointed—“messiahed”—not with oil but with the Holy Spirit, who descends on him in the form of a dove. Thus, Jesus can apply Isaiah’s prophecy to himself:
The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. (Luke 4:18)
Unsurprisingly, we then see Jesus acting as prophet, priest, and king. Take just chapter twelve of Matthew’s gospel. In it Jesus claims to be greater than Jonah (Matt. 12:41), greater than the temple (Matt. 12:6), and greater than Solomon (Matt. 12:42). In case we were in any doubt, Jesus is explicitly called a prophet (Luke 13:33, Acts 3:22–23), priest (Heb. 3:1), and king (Rev. 17:14).
The Whole Christ
Seeing this threefold office helps us recognize the different aspects of Jesus’s saving work. It also helps us recognize that all his work is saving. The temptation might be to think that it’s as priest that Jesus rescues. After all, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, Jesus has offered himself as the one true sacrifice to make atonement for our sins. But Jesus is our Savior in all three offices.
One way to think about this is to consider what we need rescuing from. Sin certainly makes us unclean, unfit to come into the presence of a holy God. Christ the priest “cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn. 1:7). But sin also enslaves us, making us servants of the evil one. Thankfully, Christ the king has the power to break the hold of sin and the devil and make us slaves of righteousness instead. Finally, sin blinds us, making us fools, unable to see the truth of the gospel. Mercifully, Christ the prophet speaks his life-giving word to us, removing the veil from our eyes so we can behold him in his glory.
We see these three aspects of Christ’s ministry on display in the Gospel accounts, even before we reach the more explicitly theological reflections of letters like Hebrews. Jesus regularly gives sight to the blind, cleanses lepers, and conquers enemies—be they evil spirits, natural forces, or even death itself. In fact, these accounts often show us how Jesus is always acting as prophet, priest, and king at the same time. Though, for simplicity’s sake, we may choose to highlight one aspect during a particular sermon or study, Jesus never removes his crown, priestly robes, and never ceases to speak and be the Word of God. Take the healing of the demon-possessed men in Matthew 8:28–32. At first glance, we might think Christ is acting solely as conquering King, driving out the demons to their destruction. But how does he perform this kingly act? With a word—“Go”—the powerful word of a prophet. And what is the result? Two formerly unclean men are restored, cleansed, able again to enter the temple to worship God. A mighty priest has been at work.
The Crucified Christ
If we can see the threefold office at work in the miracles of Christ, we see it supremely, too, in the cross of Christ. Again, the temptation may be to consider the cross the exclusive preserve of Christ’s priestly work. But the cross is Christ’s pulpit and throne as well as his altar.
Yes, it is through the death of Christ we are made clean, our sin atoned for. This is priestly imagery. But the cross is also the place where death, sin, and Satan are conquered, revealing Christ to be the true king. After all, Christ died so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14–15).
Finally, the cross is Christ’s pulpit. From it, he preaches to us of the love and justice of God. The cross shows us the “wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23–24), and therefore the way of discipleship, as Christ’s followers learn what it means to take up their own crosses to follow him.
We need the whole Christ and the whole cross. We need a savior who not only pays our debts but speaks life to our withered souls. We need a savior-prophet to whom we can cry out “Son of David, have mercy on me . . . Let me recover my sight!” (Mk. 10:48, 52), as well as a savior-priest to whom we can beg, “Make me clean!” (Mark 1:40). The richness of the Old Testament, with its cast of prophets, priests, and kings, sets the scene for a three-dimensional Christ and a three-dimensional cross. So yes, each sermon and study should be Christ-centered and cross-centered, but a rounded view of the threefold office will help us paint Christ crucified in all his glory.
Jonty Rhodes is the author of Man of Sorrows, King of Glory: What the Humiliation and Exaltation of Jesus Means for Us.