Him We Proclaim: Strategies for Apostolic Homiletics (Part 3)
Dennis E. Johnson
Christ, the Final Prophet
The focus of the prophet’s mission was revelation, delivering the Word of God. As the Shorter Catechism says, “Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation” (WSC 24). Israel’s prophets were called first to see God’s glory and to hear God’s speech. They were summoned up to God’s mountain, or (in vision) into God’s celestial throne room, to receive their message from the divine King (Isa. 6; Ezek. 1). Before God’s messengers speak, they must listen. Ezekiel ate God’s words—sweet to the taste, bitter in the stomach—to take in the message before he could give it out.
Moses stood out among the OT prophets as the one who beheld God’s glory on Sinai (Exod. 33-34) and with whom God spoke “mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles” (Numbers 12:6-8). Jesus is the prophet like Moses, yet greater than Moses, as the Son exceeds the servant and the creator overshadows the house he has built (Heb. 3:1-6).
Prophets not only see and hear. They also speak and show. Miraculous signs confirm the prophetic authority of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, and others. So also Jesus’ authority as spokesman sent by the Father is confirmed because he is, like Moses, “a prophet, powerful in word and deed” (Luke 24:19). Luke especially highlights the parallels between Jesus’ mighty signs and those performed through Elijah and Elisha (Lk. 4—9).
Prophets bring God’s message of judgment and salvation, fulfilling the roles of Prosecutor and Promiser. 2 Chronicles 36:15-16 summed up the reason for Judah’s exile:
“The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”
In Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenant farmers, he retells the sordid history of the mistreatment of the prophets, using the vineyard imagery of Isaiah 5 (Mark 12:1-12). As the beloved Son, he himself is the final emissary in a long line of mistreated messengers sent to demand God’s due from his people—bringing the succession of prophets to its climax.
As we read the former prophets (historical books) and the latter prophets, with their words of warning and indictment and comfort and hope, we need to do so in the awareness that wherever and however, and through whomever, the Word of God comes to us, it comes as Jesus exercises his office of prophet, “revealing to us, by his Word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.”
We want to ask, “What is the path from this prophet—whether faithful or flawed, courageous or confused—to Jesus the Word made flesh, the Father’s final and best Word?”
Christ, our Great High Priest
The focus of the priest’s calling was reconciliation and the resultant intimate access to the presence of God, whose holiness is like a consuming, purifying fire.
The Shorter Catechism focuses on what is distinctive in the priest’s role when it speaks of how the Lord Jesus has fulfilled and continues to fulfill the priestly office:
A 25. 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.
But the calling of Israel’s priests was complex, and they were associated with a variety of institutions and regulations—obviously the tabernacle and the temple, along with the sacrifices that were offered in these sanctuaries. Prayer was also a distinctively priestly task, since only the priests had access to the holy chamber in which incense, symbolizing Israel’s prayers, was offered.
The sanctuary was also the holy territory in which the Lord dwelt with his people and the priests were charged to protect the purity of this sacred space from any and all defilement. Tied to holy space was holy time: weekly Sabbaths, yearly feasts of unleavened bread, firstfruits, and tabernacles, periodic sabbatical years to give rest to the soil itself, and the Jubilee year of liberation. As the guardians of God’s holy presence they were associated with holy food, farms, clothes, bodies, buildings: the kosher dietary laws, laws of separation, rituals of ceremonial cleansing, and more. Through this host of regulations the Lord embedded in the visible, touchable, everyday experience of Israel the recurring message that they were a people set apart from the other peoples as his special possession, privileged to approach him in holy worship.
The priests had no allotment of farmland and were therefore dependent on the tithes of crops brought to the temple by the other Israelite tribes. Therefore the priesthood also became the focus of Israel’s expression of compassion for the widow, the orphan, and the alien, as well as for their priestly intercessors.
As we survey the tasks, privileges, and performance of Israel’s priests in the holy presence of God, we will want to see how the priests’ ministries of purification and reconciliation served as a landmark to point God’s people forward to Christ. Again and again we notice the twin trends of correspondence and heightening. To atone for sins, blood must be shed; but animals’ blood cannot cleanse the conscience. Only the blood of the great high priest can do that—and he has done so. His death is the complete and once-for-all atoning sacrifice, never needing to be repeated. Yet those reconciled by that comprehensive atonement continue to offer sacrifices: not slain animals or incinerated grain offerings, but a “sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Heb. 13:15), and the “sweet savor offerings” of donations to other believers (Phil 4:18) and other expressions of compassion that meet others’ needs as “sacrifices pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:16). Christians are constituted a “kingdom of priests,” the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s special privilege, through Jesus the great high priest. Thus we are called to respond as priests to the mercies of God—in every aspect of our lives, everywhere and every moment of every day: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).
About every priest we want to ask, “What is the path from this priest—whether faithful or flawed, pure or polluted—to Jesus the great high priest, who offered the final sacrifice and rose again, to intercede for us in heaven itself?”
The Anointed King of Kings
The focus of the King’s calling is wise and righteous rule and strong defense of God’s people against all assaults of enemies. The Shorter Catechism summarizes the Bible’s teaching on the kingly work of Christ in this way:
A. 26. 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.
Here we notice the presence of military themes: conquest (subduing), defending, restraining and conquering enemies. And, not surprisingly, we hear the governmental motif of ruling.
Kings are defenders and judges. The warrior theme is intrinsic to the king's role. Jesus is the royal champion who defends his people and disarms their enemies—paradoxically, through the apparent weakness of his cross (Col. 2:14-15; Heb. 2:14-16). But also related to the king’s role is the theme of wisdom (Solomon) that qualifies the king to render just verdicts. Jesus' teaching in parables (Hebrew: meshalim) is thus a royal activity, corresponding to Solomon's proverbs (meshalim, 1 Kings 4:32; Prov. 1:1, 6; see Ps. 78:2, cited in Matt. 13:35). Jesus is the incarnate wisdom of God, which—paradoxically—is most vividly exhibited in the apparently foolishness of his cross (1 Cor. 1:18, 12-25).
Psalm 2, often applied to Jesus in the NT, identifies the Anointed One—the king—as the Son of God. Psalm 89, probably alluded to in Paul’s song of Christ in Colossians 1, speaks of David and his dynasty as “the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth”—the Lord’s preeminent heir, reigning supreme under the blessing of his Father (89:27).
The kings of Israel and Judah—even David, the best of them—fell short of the standard for a true king (2 Sam. 23:2-7; see v. 39 and 2 Sam. 24—David’s sins). But Jesus, the son of David, was anointed to bring the rescue that all previous kings failed to achieve. In Acts 10:36-39 Peter announced that Jesus had been “anointed” with God’s Spirit as he received baptism from John and went forth in that power to “heal those oppressed by the devil.” This is the Enemy that Jesus came to confront and conquer! With authority he commanded unclean spirits to release their captives, and the demons were compelled to obey. By his death Jesus destroyed the devil who had the power to inflict death (Hebrews 2:14-16). Through the weakness of his cross, our King disarmed rulers and authorities, having triumphed over them (Colossians 2:14-15). The Lion of Judah who has conquered appears as the Lamb standing, though having been slain (Revelation 5; 19:11-21).
About every king or judge we want to ask, “What is the path from this warrior/ruler/judge—whether faithful or flawed, just or corrupt, bold or fearful, wise or foolish—to Jesus the king of kings, who defeated our great Enemy and directs us in his wisdom?”
As we read our Bible and see prophets, priests, and kings in the historical narrative, we recall that, by virtue of his office, every prophet, priest, and king in Israel’s history (and every judge and every father) was in some way a landmark directing Israel’s hopes ahead to the final and preeminent Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus the Anointed.
Some servants of God were faithful, though finite and flawed, previews of the perfect Prophet/Priest/King to come. Others were “negative images,” the antithesis of the virtues demanded in one who would stand between the Lord and his people. But those failures also showed, in their own way, how great the need was for the One who was to come.
When we these mediatorial officers and the motifs related to their roles, we need to ask, “What aspect of Christ’s work as mediator comes under the spotlight in this passage?”
His revealing role as prophet, speaking to us from the Father and enabling us to hear his Word?
His ruling role as king, acting with wisdom, courage, and justice to assert God’s reign in the world?
His reconciling, relationship-restoring role as priest, who gave himself for us and ever lives to intercede for us before the Father…and to bring us into that Holy Place?
Next Wednesday's post moves from landmarks to getting the lay of the land: the "covenant terrain" of the Scriptures.