5. Priest, King, and Prophet
We can begin with the phrase “prophet, priest, and king.” This is the order normally heard from preachers and theologians. But it is not really the Biblical order. The age of priests ran from Moses to Saul, the age of kings from Saul to the end of the Kingdom, and the age of prophets from Elijah to Jesus. If we believe in any kind of development and maturation of the kingdom of God in history, we shall have to admit that king is more than priest, and prophet more than king. Since, however, the prophetic function is associated with predicting the future, it has often been abstracted from its historical context and placed at the beginning. At the same time, as we shall see below, the prophet does come at the beginning as well as at the end, to close one period and begin a new one, so that usual ordering of these terms is not so much erroneous as incomplete.
The Larger Catechism produced by the Westminster Assembly in England in the 1640s, and used by Presbyterian churches and some others, follows the order “prophet, priest, king.” Let us look at what it says about them.
Q. 43: How does Christ execute the office of a prophet? Christ executes the office of a prophet, in his revealing to the church, in all ages, by his Spirit and word, in diverse ways of administration, the whole will of God, in all things concerning their edification and salvation.
Now, as a matter of fact, these things are not unique to prophecy at all. According to Malachi 2:7, “The lips of a priest should preserve knowledge; And they should seek the teaching from his mouth; For he is the messenger of Yahweh of armies.”
This statement seems pretty definitive: What a priest is includes, by definition, bringing messages from God. As we shall see, that is not all that a priest does, but what is clear is that the catechism definition of “prophet” does not go far enough. Moreover, the wisdom literature associated with King Solomon is also revelation of the Word of God. Jesus reveals the Word of God, thus, as priest, king, and prophet. Hence, the catechism fails to tell us what is distinctive about Jesus’ work as a prophet. As we shall see, what is distinctive about the prophet is that he is a member of God’s privy council, and it is as such that he brings the decisions of the council to the people.
Q. 44: How does Christ execute the office of a priest? Christ executes the office of a priest, in his once offering himself a sacrifice without spot to God, to be a reconciliation for the sins of his people; and in making continual intercession for them.
There are two problems here. First of all, the answer seems to equate being a priest with being a sacrifice, but a more careful reading clarifies that it is as a priest that Christ offers Himself. In Leviticus, there are three parties in every offering: the worshiper (“son of Israel”), the priest (“son of Aaron”), and the animal “(son of the herd”). According to Hebrews 9:11-14, Jesus work as great high priest includes His self-offering for our sins, but being a priest is more than that, as we shall see.
It is correct to say that part of the calling of the priest is to die for others, to be a sacrifice. Israel as a nation of priests was under the laws of uncleanness (symbolic death), and thus was living under death so that the nations might live; and this calling is pointed in the Aaronic priesthood and ultimately focussed in Jesus Christ, the great high priest. But it is also true that the king is called to die. Jesus died for us as priest and as king, so that we might become priests and kings. As the book of Hebrews makes clear, He dies as Melchizedekal priest-king, not as Aaronic priest only.
Second, intercession is not the peculiar duty of priests either, though it is one of his duties. In fact, Genesis 20:7, which is the first time in the Bible that the word prophet is used, defines a prophet as the intercessor: Abraham “is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you will live.” Certainly it is true that the men who are priests do offer prayers of intercession, but it seems that this function is more that of the prophet than of the priest. The prophet is not merely a servant, but a member of the Divine Council, and so bringing petitions before the Council is much more a prophetic than a priestly task. The catechism answer seems to transfer one of the special properties of the prophet to the priest. Indeed, in 1 Kings 8 we see King Solomon offer a long intercessory prayer on behalf of the nation, as the nation’s representative. Thus, intercession is not the unique quality of priesthood.
The priest is a servant, specifically a palace servant. This is how he differs from king and prophet. We shall take this up more fully below.
The catechism’s discussion of kingship is also problematic:
Q. 45: How does Christ execute the office of a king? Christ executes the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, and giving them officers, laws, and censures, by which he visibly governs them; in bestowing saving grace upon his elect, rewarding their obedience, and correcting them for their sins, preserving and supporting them under all their temptations and sufferings, restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.
Since ruling or governing is a distinctive quality of kingship, the catechism’s answer seems adequate. But there is an important aspect of kingship that is completely missing from this long list, and that is that the king must die. Jesus was acclaimed king when He arrived in Jerusalem. He was put on trial as a king. He was crowned king, with thorns, and given a royal robe. Then He was executed with a sign over His head that said, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” Jesus did not die only as priest, but also as king, for as the greater Melchizedek He was and is both priest and king. His first throne was the cross.
The fact that the king is called upon to give up his glory and “die” for others is overlooked in this set of answers, because of the notion that sacrificial death is associated only with priesthood. This is a significant error, which we must see if we are to begin to understand the Biblical teachings regarding life and history.
While we think usually of priest and king as two aspects of our lives or as working side-by-side in God’s kingdom as officers of church and state, it is also true that priest comes before king in the Bible. At Mt. Sinai, Aaron was made High Priest, but we do not get a king (a “High Judge”) until we get to Saul. Thereafter, we have priest and king together over the Kingdom: ox and lion, Jachin and Boaz.
What is a priest? Peter Leithart in his book The Priesthood of the Plebs has shown that a priest is a royal or palace servant. Notice how Hebrews 3:1-5 associates the Mosaic priesthood with being a servant of God’s palace:
Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house. For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things that were to be spoken later. . . .
Leithart shows that to define “priest” as president of sacrificial worship, or as mediator, or as sanctuary guard, does not do full justice to the usage of the Hebrew word kohen (priest) in the Bible. Only the notion of housekeeping, of serving a king in his palace, is both broad enough and specific enough to account for the duties and characteristics of a priest. And, since the tabernacle and Temple, as palaces of Yahweh, were symbols of the people-house of God’s worshippers, the priest is a servant of God within that religious community. In fact, the Biblical office of priest is virtually identical to that of pastor or minister in the New Covenant church: He teaches God’s Word, supervises religious meals, and organizes/disciplines the people for worship.
Servant is the key word here. The priest as such has very simple jobs: He inspects the animal brought for sacrifice; he helps the layman offer it; he inspects for leprosy; he does certain rituals in the palace of God; etc. All of these are simple tasks and involve nothing but sheer obedience. The priest judges between right and wrong, between lawful and unlawful, between clean and unclean, between holy and common. Is the sheep blemished or not? This a simple matter to detrmine. At the time the priesthood was set up, at Sinai, the Law was given, and again, when we think of law, we think of obedience, of right and wrong. It is simple: You either obey or your don’t.
What a priest teaches is what God has told him. The priestly literature in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers consists of pure dictation from God.
Jesus is not only priest but king. He is Melchizedekal priest-king. Thus, He is not merely a servant in the house, but the Son-king over the house. He does not rule the house as priest, but as king. And He does not die as a priestly servant but as a house-ruling king.
A king has a different and far more mature task. When we get to the Kingdom era, we get wisdom literature. Wisdom concerns not simple questions of right and wrong, but questions of what is wise and what is unwise in any given situation, new situations not specifically covered by the Law. More than this, the king must usually decide not between right and wrong, but between two evils. He must choose the lesser of two evils. Think of a commander in the field. He may have to send one platoon of men to its death in order to draw fire from the enemy, so that another platoon can circle around and destroy the enemy. That is not an easy decision to make. It is kingly, not priestly. An example of such kingly wisdom is seen when Solomon must decide between the claims of the two harlots in 1 Kings 3.
The king is not going to have such wisdom unless he learns the Law first. Wisdom builds on law, and king builds on priest. There must be a “priestly phase” of our lives, during which we learn wisdom through obedience and struggle, before we enter a “kingly phase” and have wisdom to give to others. As should be obvious, this is very similar to the relationship between childhood and maturity. As children, we obey. As adults, we have to make hard decisions. Bread is for priests and for children, while wine is for kings and adults. Leviticus 10 forbids the priests to drink while they carry out their tasks, and priests never sit during their tasks, but kings are repeatedly shown drinking wine while they rest enthroned.
If a priest is an obedient servant, and a king is a wise ruler, then a prophet is something beyond this. In the Bible, a prophet is one of God’s chief counselors, whom God consults before He acts (Amos 3:7; 7:1-6; Genesis 20:7; 18:16-33). The prophet is the mature image of God, now woven into God’s fellowship as a junior partner in His Council.
Becoming prophets is a third phase of our lives, our eldership, when we have not only acquired wisdom, but have tested our wisdom through years of being “kings” and now have acquired the ability to pass on both law and wisdom to others, those coming after us. This is because we are mature enough to know how to pray, how to advise God; and thus, we are mature enough to advise others also.
Moreover, when we look at the prophetic literature, we see that a prophet is someone who by his words alone tears down an old world and creates a new one. His words cause people to think in new ways. He does not merely repeat what has been said before, or apply the old ways into new situations. He provides a new vision, a vision encompassing death and resurrection. Once a true prophet has spoken, no one can continue to think in the old comfortable way any longer. His words cause turmoil, but they also provide a vision of something better, and the righteous begin to think and act in new ways as a result.
Thus, the distinctive quality of a priest is obedient service. The distinctive quality of a king is wise rule. And the distinctive quality of a prophet is mediation and transformation, carrying prayer-petitions to the Council and reporting back the decisions of the Council.
Each is associated with passing judgment. The priest passes judgment according to the rules of the law: supervising the killing of animals and distinguishing clean and unclean. The king passes judgment according to wisdom, in the wider sphere of national life. But judgment is preeminently associated with the prophet, who brings judgment upon the whole culture, thereby ending one period of history and initiating the next.
The prophet as judge and advisor explains why the prophet is not only the culmination of one phase of life and history, but also the initiator of the next. Moses comes as great prophet to tear down old Egypt and to set up the history of Israel, when then runs through priestly, kingly, and prophetic phases. Jesus comes as the climax of the prophetic phase, tearing down the old Adamic world and instituting the next (and final) cycle of history. The first prophet was God Himself, who set up first three phases: Adam (priestly), Cain (kingly), Sons of God (prophetic). The culmination of the third phase was Noah, who prophesied before the Flood, and then initiated the next phase of history: Abraham (priestly), Jacob (kingly), Joseph (prophetic). Moses was the culmination of the third phase, prophesying against Egypt and initiating the next phase of history.
Because the prophet is both a member of the Divine Council and also a world-maker, we can see that the prophet is the most mature, the most Father-like, of the three phases of human life.
We can see the same kind of pattern if we distinguish the youthful prophet from the aged prophet. We see this in the book of Daniel. In Daniel 2, Daniel is able to advise the king, and to prophesy the future, because God explicitly reveals the future to him during a night of prayer. Daniel is a very young man at this time. In Daniel 5, however, the aged Daniel is able to prophesy out of his own lifetime of experiences, without any special explanatory revelation from God. Indeed, the following sequence can easily be observed in Daniel 2-5:
Daniel 2 – Daniel as youthful prophet
Daniel 3 – Daniel’s friends as true priests, who reject false worship
Daniel 4 – Nebuchadnezzar as king
Daniel 5 – Daniel as aged prophet, revealing the end of the old Babylonian age and the beginning of the new Persian age.
The flow from childhood (being under an older prophetic initiator), to priestly service, to kingly rule, to prophetic “divinity” as a member of God’s council, is not only the course of human history as a whole, but also is found in smaller time sequences within history. We could look at each of the Biblical covenantal periods and see in them a general movement from a time of priestly service to a time of kingly action and then to a time of prophetic judgment and reordering.
The same is true in our lives. Not only do we grow from childhood to eldership over the course of our lives, but we pass through this sequence many times in shorter ways. Let us take an example.
1. Initial prophethood. The home computer is invented. This is a new thing, superseding the old: The older typewriter is now dead. You purchase such a computer. You have now entered into this new phase of your own life and activity. The producer of the computer provides you a law-book that tells you how to use this new machine. This is the prophecy uttered by the prophet at the beginning of this new phase of your life. Compare it to the books of Moses.
2. Priesthood. You must obey the book. You must learn how to use the computer. Probably others will help instruct you, and you will be asking them for advice. During this period of time, you are under such tutors and governors, as a “servant” learning how to use the computer.
3. Kingship. Gradually you become able to use the computer yourself. You begin to learn more, by trial and error rather than by consulting authorities. Of course, if you actually disobey the law found in the book, you will not be successful with your computer. Still, because you have internalized the law, you don’t have to consult the book as often, nor do you have to ask advice as often. Also, you gradually become sensitive to what the computer can and cannot do. This is wisdom, the sensitivity to the situation that comes from experience.
4. Prophethood. After much time of using the computer, you become able to instruct others. You become one of the advisors, consulted by other people who have just bought their first computer. Moreover, you can also advise the “god” who made the computer. You can send the company email messages with advice on how to make the computer better. If they are wise, they will take your experience and advice into consideration.
Notice that you don’t cease to be a priest when you become a king. The rule book is still there, and occasionally you have to go back and consult it. The rules still govern how you use the computer, and you’d better not depart from them. Similarly, you don’t cease to be a priest and king when you become a prophet. You still use your own computer, even though you are also advising others how to use theirs, and advising the maker how to make things better in the future.
We can go through the same sequence looking at the activity of baking a cake. The first time you make a bundt cake, you need to open the book and follow the rules very carefully. After a while, you become more kingly in how you make the cake: You begin to experiment a little, trying a bit more of this and a bit less of that, adding a certain spice, etc. Through trial and error, you acquire wisdom about making a bundt cake. Then, when people praise your cake as especially good, you can write down the recipe for them and instruct them in how to make one. You can even write to the publisher of the cookbook with your new ideas.
From these two examples, which could be multiplied billions of times, we can see that the passage from priest to king to prophet is not something distinctively “religious,” but is in fact the essence of human life and growth. We are moving through these phases all the time, not only in small ways, but also in the larger course of our entire lifespan.
This is part of what it means to be an image of God. The image of God passes through these three stages, and the three phases have much to do with the Trinity, as we have seen.
Because of sin, human beings apart from grace are bad priests, bad kings, and bad prophets. As bad priests, they are disobedient and rebellious. As bad priests, they don’t follow the rule book. They buy a computer, plug it in, and then start messing with it. They may learn a few things, but they resent having to obey the book. Also, as bad priests, they are not willing to be learners for a time. They move right away into the trial-and-error phase that should come later, and often blab away their opinions to others, trying to be prophets to them when they have little useful to impart.
As bad kings, they rule poorly. Because they refused to serve, they don’t know how to rule well. Our computer analogy does not help us much here, but the reader need only think of the multitudes of bad kings, owners, and managers that have afflicted human history.
As bad prophets they give bad advice and set in motion evil trends that move history in the wrong direction. We need only think of the many older people who are not elders, but only bitter and self-centered old people.
The meaning of Jesus’ perfect human life is not only that He came to die for our sins, but also that He gives to us His perfect life. He gives it to us not so much as a model, for we do not in fact do the same things Jesus did, but as a type. A type is a deep-pattern impressed into us by the Holy Spirit. We are placed in union with Jesus, and the deep-pattern of His life is given to us. Ultimately, the pattern of Jesus life from childhood to full maturity, from priest to king to prophet, arises from the fact that as Son He is eternally immature, eternally adult, and eternally fully mature. By eating His body and drinking His blood, we are restored and renewed so that we can move properly through these three phases of life.
We can now improve the questions found in the Westminster Catechism.
Q. How does the Spirit work as a priest? The Spirit works as a priest by bringing the Son to us and by bring us to Jesus, in full and joyful submission and obedience to the Father.
Q. How does Jesus do the work of a priest? Jesus does the work of a priest by being fully submissive and obedient to His Father by means of the Spirit, by guarding His Father’s house, and by bringing us through the Spirit to Himself.
Q. How does Jesus work as a king? Jesus works as a king by coming into the world to die for the redemption of His people, and by ruling them in all ways.
Q. How does the Spirit work with the Son in His kingship? The Spirit works with the Son in His kingship as paraclete to keep us close to the Son as co-rulers with Him, and by bringing us with the Son to the Father.
Q. How is the Spirit “the Spirit of prophecy”? The Spirit is the Spirit of prophecy in that He is the glorifier of God, of humanity, and of the world.
Q. How does the Father work as a prophet? The Father works as a prophet by creating and re-creating humanity and the world and by sending His Spirit and His Son into humanity and thereby into the world to glorify them.
Q. How does Jesus work as a prophet? Jesus works as a prophet by joining with His Father in the work of creation and re-creation, and by sending His Spirit into humanity and thereby into the world to complete their glorification.
(Note: The information in this brief essay is expanded in great detail in my book From Bread to Wine, available from Biblical Horizons.)