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Prophet, Priest, and King
The Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
March 22, 2015 - Hebrew 5:5-10; Jeremiah 31:5-14

 

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Prophet, Priest, and King
Hebrew 5:5-10; Jeremiah 31:5-14               

Rev. Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
March 22, 2015

 

I wish that I could at least tell you who wrote Hebrews, or that I could tell you when it was written, or even to whom, but I can’t.  It’s lost to the mists of time.

Tom Long writes, “Imagine being handed a book today with the comment, ‘Here, you may enjoy this.  It was written in America, or Russia, or France, I’m not sure, by a Jew or a Gentile, anyway, it was written sometime between 1920 and 1970.  Enjoy.’”1

I have a strong hunch that it is not an overstatement to say that every time a Presbyterian pastor prepares to preach a text from the letter to the Hebrews, there is a theology professor from one seminary or another lurking in the background quoting Calvin to him or her.  It’s a specific quote from Calvin, too:  “To know the purpose for which Christ was sent by the Father, and what he conferred upon us, we must look above all else at three things in him: the prophetic office, kingship and priesthood.”2

This is the title of the 15th chapter of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and he goes on to add this, “In order that faith may find a firm basis for salvation in Christ, and thus rest in him, this principle must be laid down: the office enjoined upon Christ by the Father consists of three parts.  For he was given to be prophet, king and priest.”3

Before we unpack that, I want to give Calvin a nod as to why this particular division of labor is important: these are the three offices to which individuals were anointed in the Old Testament: prophet, priest and king.

The word, Christ, just means anointed. 

So if we are to understand Christ, we must understand his role. 

Now, I am a realist. I have resigned myself to the reality that we don’t sit around thinking about the three-fold office of messiah in the letter to the Hebrews.  I am aware that we probably don’t ingest Calvin with our cornflakes.

But I do think we rely on God in our daily lives – in the hard moments, when we are trying to figure out what sort of person we need to be, and what we need to do, in the crisis moments when we want to know that there are ultimate things on which we can rely, and also in the midst of the humdrum, day to day, boring realities in which faith is simply the background music of our lives – there but not maybe on the front of our brains. 

In other words, just like Calvin said, faith rests in Christ. 

The portion of Hebrews that we read today focuses on Christ’s priestly office, but I don’t know that I think it is all that helpful for us to divide up the work of Christ into component parts, so today I would like for us to concentrate on having a better understanding of Jesus’s life as prophet, priest and king. 

Again, we have no idea to whom it was written, or when, but let’s assume its in the first century, and it’s to someone who has more than a nodding acquaintance with Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament.

In which case, we can begin to surmise what an operative understanding of those three offices might look like.

If we’re using the Old Testament as our basis of knowledge, we know what a prophet is. 

A prophet is someone that God appointed, or anointed, in order to have a mouthpiece in the world. 

We may tend to think of prophecy in terms of foretelling the future.

There is a tendency for Christians to think of all prophecy as foretelling the coming of Jesus, but in much larger measure, it’s not.

Generally prophecy in the Bible refers to those who come to speak the truth to power.

Elijah was a prophet, and he had a rather spectacular series of run-ins with those in authority.  We know the minor and major prophets of the Old Testament as the ones who came with dire warnings on their lips.

The truth, or the warnings, differ depending on the Prophet’s age.  Elijah took on the prophets of Ba’al, warning the Israelites against idolatry and placing their trust in fake Gods. 

Samuel had the unhappy task of confronting the king with his adulterous affair.

Later, the major and minor prophets railed against the kings of Israel for having abandoned God’s way for the people and warned that military conquest was coming. 

No, the message was different in different ages.  But here is what the prophets had in common: it was a terrible job.

In the early days of train travel before safety regulations came into effect, Sears and Roebuck Catalogue carried a wooden leg available for purchase called, “the Brakeman’s Friend,” because so many railroad brakemen lost limbs in the railroad industry.  You would think with so many people losing their limbs, that people would stop taking the job, but apparently that wasn’t so – the compulsion to be able to feed oneself and one’s family compelled enough people to need to the job that there were enough people to have casualties to compel Sears and Roebuck to catalogue a prosthetic limb. 

That is the kind of job that being an Old Testament prophet was like. 

Prophet’s didn’t tend to be popular.

They didn’t always live to a ripe old age. 

And given the number of them who felt compelled to preach at all times, you probably wouldn’t want one for a neighbor.  A great number of prophets wailed at God for making them be prophets.

The priest job is a little better in the Bible. 

As long as you were an honest priest – and apparently those could be in short supply also – you got to keep a portion of the animal sacrifice that was to be offered to God. 

I think we tend to assume that the burnt offerings to YHWH were in fact, great big smoldering piles of wasted dead animals – not so.  This is a subsistence culture and a portion was burned for God, a portion was allocated to the priest and the giver got the rest.

But priesthood could be rather dangerous profession also – once a year, a high priest would be designated by lot to go into the holy of holies – that’s the most sacred part of the temple, behind the curtain, the alleged dwelling place of God on earth – and be prepared to encounter the transcendent God.  It was a great honor to be chosen to do so – but here’s the catch: they always tied a rope around the ankle of the guy they sent back in there in case he dropped dead of fright or an immanent encounter with God.  That way they could haul the carcass out without anyone else’s life being at risk. 

I’m not sure I’d be so keen on being the priest under those circumstances.

Kingship should at least be a slam-dunk, right?

Ehhhhhhh… not so much.  It’s fine if you’re King David or King Solomon, there are of course, several notorious indiscretions for which these kings are known, but it’s not so bad.  The kingdom was healthy, the foreign invaders were held off – they died as old men in the beds. 

But if you’re Jehoiakim or Jehoiachin around the time of the collapse, they do bad things to the kings.  The victorious foreign invaders – well let’s just say they do bad things.  I don’t need to get graphic with it. 

So here is this model of prophet, priest and king, and wow, is it ever riddled with things that one would not want to have associated with oneself!

I’m not sure just how helpful that model really is.

And the modern understanding of it is probably no better that an ancient one:

The prophet may well be a bigoted loudmouth,

The priest may just be Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons,

And the King – well, that one is utterly irrelevant for Americans, isn’t it?

But what if…

The prophet is the one who tells us the truth when nobody else will,

     The priest is the one who intercedes to God for us when we’ve run out of hope,

            And the king is the one who will never, ever, ever leave us uncared for?

Calvin said this too, “Thus it is that we may patiently pass through this life with its misery, hunger, cold, contempt, reproaches and other troubles – content with this one thing: that our King will never leave us destitute, but will provide for all our needs until, our warfare ended, we are called to triumph.  Such is the nature of his rule, that he shares with us all that he has received from the Father.”4

This was not a prophet, priest or king like any the Israelites ever encountered before.

This is not a prophet, priest or king like any we have ever encountered before.

This is God as both prophet and rescuer,

This is God as both priest and sacrifice,

This is God as both king and servant,

In other words, this isn’t like anything else. 

Jesus isn’t like anyone else.

These are terms that get thrown around to describe Jesus quite a bit.  “Great high priest.”  “Christ the King.” 

But the truth is that more than whatever we could ask or imagine of the best of these things is true of Jesus because in Jesus the fullness of God chose to dwell.

As we prepare for the coming of Easter, we do well to remember that Christ just means the anointed one, and the tasks to which Jesus are anointed are tasks none of us want.

The priest becomes the sacrifice. 

The prophet is mocked to identify who is hitting him.

The king gets a crown of thorns.

The letter to the Hebrews seeks to help us understand Jesus Christ, and at the heart of understanding Christ’s work is to know that God is in the middle of it all.

There is a great mystery to the workings of God’s plan for salvation.  It’s not mysterious in that it is secretive, it is mysterious in that God is always transcendent, beyond our knowing, and yet, also immanent, so close to us as to take on flesh and become incarnate.

We’re speaking of holy mysteries now.  And even in the midst of holy mysteries, Calvin tells us that are drafted into Christ’s priesthood.

Jesus himself tells his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. 

And that means that we, too, are called to tell the truth, to be servants, and to care for the uncared-for.

And the challenge for me, for you, for all of us, is this: are we doing our best?

So often, I am as guilty of this as anyone, we want to make church undemanding.  We want to make Christian discipleship easy and we rest on that old text that Jesus’s burden is easy and his yoke is light.

And it’s true, they are.  They are easy and light because we are joined to Christ in his work.

Christ is not joined to us in our work, we are joined to Christ.

That means his work of truth-telling, caring, servanthood, and my question for you and for me is this: are we doing our best?

As we prepare for Easter, are we doing our best?

Gardner C. Taylor tells the story of a terrible storm on Lake Michigan in which a ship was wrecked near the shore.  A Northwestern University student, Edmond Spenser, went into the raging water again and again and single-handedly rescued seventeen people.  When friends carried him to his room, nearly exhausted and faint, he kept asking them, “Did I do my best?”5

We are joined to Christ in his work… as prophet, priest, king…

Truth-teller, sacrificial giver, caregiver to the uncared-for.

You know what they mean.  You know what you’re to do.

Are you doing your best?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

 


1 Long, Thomas.  Hebrews in Interpretation.  (JKP, Louisville, 1997) p2
2 Calvin, John.  The Institutes of the Christian Religion, McNeill, ed.  (Westminster, Philadelphia, MCMLX) p494
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid, 499
5 Taylor, Gardner C.  His Own Clothes in A Chorus of Witnesses, Long and Plantinga, eds.  (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1994) p294

Last Published: March 24, 2015 6:14 PM