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Him We Proclaim: Strategies for Apostolic Homiletics (Part 2)

November 16, 2011

Dennis E. Johnson

2. Landmarks: Biblical elements and motifs that are built into the offices of covenantal mediation that God gave Israel, offices that now converge in Christ, who is, in the end, “only mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5).

Landmarks are not as specific as street signs. But looming landmarks can help us “get our bearings” in unfamiliar territory. We have a daughter, son-in-law, and three fantastic grandchildren who live in Colorado Springs. When we visit them in “the Springs,” on any clear day we know what direction we are driving: the Rockies rise to the west, the plains stretch out to the east, and a glimpse of Pike’s Peak above the western foothills shows us whether we are north or south of the center of the city. Now, Pike’s Peak is a large landmark, and seeing it in the distance is not much help if you are looking for a specific house on a specific street. But the plains, the mountains, and the Peak help us out-of-town visitors get our bearings as we move around the city. I would suggest that Scripture offers similar landmarks to help us get our bearings as we try to find the highways that lead from various OT and NT passages toward Jesus, at Scripture’s center.

To use a different metaphor, from architecture, we could think of the clearly labeled types as the visible structure of a skyscraper that rises from the earth. We know that it rests on an unseen, subterranean foundation—a substructure. The shape of the building we see gives us hints of the contours of the substructure that we do not see. This imagery was implied in the subtitle of C. H. Dodd’s important but rare little book, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology, which (as far as I can tell) seems to have had only a single printing in 1952. Dodd’s point was that the foundation that unifies the New Testament kerygma is the conviction that Jesus’ saving mission was the focal point of God’s plan for history, and therefore that it had been foretold and foreshadowed in the Scriptures given to Israel. The Old Testament sub-structure could be inferred not only in the OT wording actually cited by NT authors but also in the wider OT contexts from which citations and allusions had been drawn. The shape of the edifice that we can see “above ground,” as it were, shows us the contours of the foundation, that lies outside our view, deep in bedrock.

In other words, the typological connections that the NT explicitly identifies between OT events, institutions, offices, and persons and Jesus are not exceptions to some general hermeneutical rule that forbids us to read Israel’s history as anticipating what God would do in Christ. Rather, the street signs—obvious instances of “correspondence and heightening”—make visible patterns of interconnection that are really there in the history of God’s people, though the deeper patterns may be harder to see.

Among the substructure “pylons” (to use Dodd’s image) or “landmarks” (to return to Pike’s Peak) that I find most helpful are the three categories of leaders by whom God mediated his Word, his rule, and his presence to ancient Israel: prophets, kings, and priests.

These “theocratic officers” or covenant mediators—prophets, priests, kings—were buffers, insulating God’s defiled people from his consuming holiness. But Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings were also bridges: because God is gracious, he still insists on living with his guilty people—to speak to them, to make peace between himself and us rebels, to direct us in safe paths and to protect us from those who want to destroy us.

I am suggesting that we should view the prophetic, priestly, and kingly figures of ancient Israel in relation to the convergence and climax of those functions in Christ. As the handout shows, I did not come up with this idea on my own. That should reassure you! The confessional documents that we have inherited from the Reformers have reminded us that each office and officer in a distinctive way illumines the complex and comprehensive sufficiency of Christ as the “one mediator between God and man” (1 Tim. 2:5). The Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647), for example, teaches:

A.23 Christ, as our redeemer, executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation.

Similarly, almost a century earlier (1563) the Heidelberg Catechism had answered the question (31), “Why is [Jesus] called the Christ, meaning ‘anointed’?” in this way:

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 perfectly reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God for our deliverance; our only high priest who has set us free 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 up in the freedom he has won for us.

This threefold analysis of mediatorial functions in the Old Testament and of Christ’s fulfillment of all three functions is picking up cues embedded in the Scriptures themselves. Although it appears that the patriarchs and Moses fulfilled prophetic, royal, and priestly roles, in the later history of Israel, the distinctive responsibilities of hearing and speaking God’s true word, executing God’s righteous rule, and serving in God’s holy presence with holiness were distributed to different men: prophets, kings, and priests.

So, for example, in Deuteronomy 17-18 we find specific instructions pertaining to Kings (17:14-20), Priests (18:1-8), and Prophet(s) (18:9-22). Kings must not accumulate excessive wealth or foreign wives; rather they must and keep and study a copy of the Law, to keep their hearts humble, just, and wise. Priests have no inheritance in land, so they must be provided for from the other tribes’ tithes as they stand in the sanctuary on behalf of their brothers. Israel must not try to probe cosmic secrets through pagan divination, but must listen to the “prophet like Moses” whom the Lord will raise up.

Another threefold breakdown of Israel’s theocratic mediators is implied in Jeremiah 2:8, where God expresses his God’s displeasure with unfaithful priests, unfaithful shepherds, and unfaithful prophets. In Jeremiah 18:18 the trio is modified slightly from “priests, shepherds, and prophets” to “priests, sages, and prophets.”

In the New Testament we hear Jesus identified as the promised prophet like Moses (Acts 3), as the anointed King (Acts 2; Rev. 19), and as our great high priest (Hebrews 10). In fact, the prologue to the epistle/sermon to the Hebrews (1:1-4) introduces Christ with reference to all three of Israel’s theocratic offices. He is the spokesman from God who stands in continuity with the ancient prophets but transcends them: “Long ago…God spoke…by the prophets… in these last days he has spoken by his Son….” (2:1-2). He is the high priest who has “made purification for sins” (2:17-18). His royal authority as king is signaled by the titles that distinguish him as God’s supreme heir, God’s wisdom, and the enthroned ruler who fulfills Psalm 110: “a Son, … the heir of all things…radiance of the glory (wisdom)…sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….” (2:5-9).

As we read the Old Testament and observe prophetic, royal, and priestly figures functioning as intermediaries of the Lord’s truth, authority, and holiness to the people of God, the themes associated with each of these offices, and accounts of those who filled them in ancient Israel (sometimes well, sometimes poorly), are helpful landmarks to direct us to the fully-sufficient Revealer, Reconciler, and Ruler, Jesus the Anointed. So I’m suggesting that it is fruitful to keep the typological “correspondence and heightening” paradigm in mind wherever we encounter these individuals and themes. We should expect that prophets who spoke God’s truth, priests who entered God’s holy presence to offer prayer and sacrifice, and kings who ruled in God’s wisdom and justice and fought in God’s strength were, to one degree or another, previews of the final Prophet, Priest, and King for whom our hearts long.

Next Wednesday "Landmarks" continues with more on the roles of Prophet, Priest, and King.