The Church: Prophet, Priest, King

Christ is the head, the Church is the body. It follows from that truth that there are many things that may be said of Christ that may be said of the Church as well. Not everything, but a lot. You may be familiar with the idea of the ‘threefold office of Christ,’ the idea that our Lord combined the three major offices, or roles, of the religious and political life of Israel and fulfilled them all: that he was a prophet, a priest, and a king. As his body, and as those animated and empowered by his same spirit, we ought not be surprised to find that the Church has a prophetic, a priestly, and a kingly role in the world today. But what does that mean, and how might it help us to understand the task of the Church in the world? Let us consider each in turn.

Part I: The Prophetic Community
The prophetic task is primarily oriented towards representing God to the people. This was the work of the prophets throughout the Old Testament, from Moses to Jesus, to speak on God’s behalf to the people of Israel. The Church takes up this prophetic mantle, and is charged with speaking on God’s behalf, bearing witness in all the world to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Church is God’s mouthpiece in the world today. What does that vocation entail, and how is it fulfilled?

Comfort and Confrontation
The prophet aims to both comfort and confront groups within their society. Generally, the latter of these receives more attention, so we will consider it first. When people think of being a ‘prophetic voice’, they are usually gearing themselves up for a clash with the powers that be, like Elijah preparing to confront Ahab and Jezebel. Indeed, this is a task for the Church. Prophets throughout the Old Testament consistently confront rulers and authorities and call them to repentance. Granted, much of this is aimed to those who rule Israel, that is, who rule within the people of God, but there are significant instances of prophets confronting external rulers (e.g., Jonah, Daniel). The Church inherits this tradition, and the New Testament is full of political statements of a quietly subversive nature. The book of Revelation is filled to the brim with veiled yet uncompromising criticism of Rome, and the central statement of Christian faith—Jesus is Lord—is made with one eye on Caesar and his claims to universal dominion. In this way, there is a sense in which the prophetic position is over and against the people to whom they speak, particularly those in power, and those with a vested interest in things staying the way they are. Prophets represent God, who gives them the script, meaning they may not always say what their audience wants them to hear, and they cannot say ‘Peace, peace’ where there is no peace.

At the same time, the task of the prophet is not simply to trash the enemies of God and warn them of their impending destruction. Perhaps one of the most famous lines in all the prophetic literature is ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God’ (Isaiah 40:1). The prophets are also charged with cultivating hope in the people of God by turning their eyes back to the God of Exodus and Easter, of Redemption and Resurrection. The same is true in the book of Revelation, as seen, for example, in the frequent refrain of the seven letters of Christ to the Churches: ‘to the one who overcomes’. If the task of the prophet is to afflict the comfortable, it is also to comfort the afflicted, and to awaken their imaginations to the possibility—nay, certainty—that things will not always be as they are now. It is the work of the prophet to proclaim the blessing of God upon the poor and the meek, seeing through the ways of the world and discerning the purposes, priorities, promises, and power of God. When speaking on behalf of God to the faithful, the prophet’s task is to plant and nurture hope.

Ultimately, the same message goes to both the powerful and the downtrodden: things will not always be this way. God will act and do justice, so prepare now. In this way, the word of the prophet is generally oriented to the future, even as it calls the past to mind: destruction is coming, so repent; reward is coming, so endure; return to the Lord your God.

Contemplation, Creativity, Charismata
How can the Church fulfil this vocation of comfort and confrontation? Three more Cs (I’m on an alliterative roll): contemplation, creativity, and charismata (that is, spiritual gifts).

The messages of the prophets are the fruit of their deep attentiveness both to God and to the world as they found it. It is through the contemplation of these two fundamental realities that the prophet is able to speak a message that is authoritative, penetrating, and timely. This insight does not come about overnight and all at once. Even as we confess that many (though not all) the prophets received messages through moments of special divine revelation, we must also recognise that these revelations were material for meditation, and were considered deeply before they were written down. Since we confess—unlike the Muslims with the Qur’an, for a contrasting example—that the Scriptures are fully the work of human authorship, it stands to reason that the insights given by the Spirit were worked into the texts as we have them after reflection and contemplation by the prophets themselves. This requires time and solitude. The prophet cannot maintain their ministry if they are always outwardly focussed. All the prophets had times of wrestling with God alone, times of prayer and meditation alone. The Church, and the individuals that make it up, ought to be the same. What does this mean for the life of the Church? It means that if the Church is going to have something worth saying to the world, it cannot always be speaking to the world. Not everything in the life of the church, be it Sunday services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, retreats, etc., should be accessible to all people. There should be periods—and a significant amount of time—given to time away from the world, time out of conversation with the world, in order to pay better attention to God. All the prophets lived in ways that were distinct and separate from the people around them, and the Church ought to follow suit. In short, less evangelism for the sake of deeper spiritual formation and contemplation of what God wants us to say at this moment might mean more effective evangelism when we do speak. Christ himself withdrew from the crowds, and even at times from the disciples, in order to spend time with his Father.

As for creativity, I have in mind here the prophetic task of casting a vision of hope for the future, and forming communities in which that vision is expressed. This begins with preaching that gives people a vision of what God is doing here and now. Eugene Peterson described preaching as the task of taking the occasion of the text and the occasion of its preaching, and combining them in one new and unrepeatable occasion in which God is working and active now. Creativity also will lead us into forming communities that provide alternative ways of living to the world around them. The prophets were weird and lived weirdly, and unfortunately we will have to do the same if we choose to do something as strange as follow Christ. This will not just be worked out on an individual level, but will be communal as well. If the church confesses that another world is possible and another kingdom is present, then its society will have to make that claim credible, and the church must be its own society, lived according to the law of love, a living political witness to the alternative Kingdom of Christ. More on that theme in part III.

Lastly, the prophetic task requires, well, prophets. I see no exegetical, theological, or historical reason to suppose the charismatic gifts have ceased (but I won’t rehearse those arguments here) and we’ll need the Spirit’s gifts to fulfil this vocation. Among those gifts, the exercising of the prophetic gift in particular is for the sake of unbelievers. As Paul says to the Corinthians: ‘But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.’ (1 Corinthians 14:24-5) The task of the prophet is to draw attention, in word and witness, to the present reality of God. At times, God himself does this in extraordinary ways.

Part II: The Priestly Community
The priestly task is primarily oriented towards representing the people to God. The task of the priest of the Old Covenant was to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, to plead their case before God, to entreat his forgiveness and grace. It was to stand in the gap before man and God, and there to defend the indefensible: humanity. In a striking, vivid picture of his work, the High Priest would wear an ephod with twelve stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel, and he would wear this into the presence of God, bearing their names on his heart before God. His tasks was also to offer the sacrifices of the people to their God, and so lead them in their worship and secure their cleansing from sin. These tasks of sacrifice, sanctification, and intercession are now the work of the Church.

The first way in which the Church takes up the role of the priest is through the offering of ourselves as a sacrifice to God. Peter describes the Church as a priesthood that ‘offers spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2:5). But what are these sacrifices? Our whole lives, to begin with: Romans 12 is perhaps the most famous text in the New Testament appropriating the sacrificial language, with Paul’s exhortation that we present our bodies as living sacrifices towards God. Still, we can be more specific by considering the ways in which our sacrifice to God is demonstrated through our self-offering to God, to each other, and for the sake of the world.

Firstly, our sacrifice is a sacrifice of thanks and praise addressed directly to God, as seen in Hebrews 13:15, ‘Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.’ This is one of the reasons that corporate worship is so important, and one sense in which there is a sacrifice offered on Sunday mornings. Though all of our lives may be worship, our verbal worship is still the focal point of that worship’s expression, and is a key part of our sacrificial giving to God. It seems profoundly strange to me that many conservative evangelicals, influenced by the Sydney brand of Anglicanism, reject the idea of Sunday morning gatherings being a ‘worship service’, preferring to think of it as a ‘meeting’. Given how central the word is to their theology, it seems contradictory to make our words to God almost incidental. Anyone who rejects the famous phrase ‘Preach the gospel, use words if necessary’ should recognise that ‘Worship the Lord, use words if necessary’ is equally unbiblical.

Secondly, we see that the sacrifice of our whole lives, while given to God, is also expressed through our interactions with each other. In Ephesians 5:2, Paul ties our sacrifice to Christ’s sacrifice: ‘And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ As Christ gave himself up for us as an offering to God, so we give ourselves up for each other as an offering to God. This may be expressed financially, as in Philippians 4, in which Paul describes the offering of the Philippians church as a ‘fragrant offering’, or in other works works of kindness, as in Hebrews 13:  ‘Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.’

Finally, priestly imagery is used in the way in which we serve the those outside the church. Sacrifice is one of the ways in which Paul understands his missionary service, as in 2 Timothy 4:6-7: ‘For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’ Paul’s activity in reaching the Gentiles is a ‘priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.’ (Romans 15:16). Every sacrifice we make for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom is a priestly offering, made holy through the Spirit who sanctifies.

The work of the Church is also priestly inasmuch as the Church sanctifies its location. Our Lord said that it is the Temple that makes the gold holy (Matt. 23:17), and Paul says that believers have a sanctifying effect within their families: ‘For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.’ (1 Corinthians 7:14). This is part of what it means for the Church to be the ‘salt of the earth’. Leviticus 2:13 makes salt part of the sacrifices: ‘You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt’, and the salt that acts as a preservative in the world is the presence of the faithful. Just as the Lord would have spared Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men, so the presence of the Church sanctifies the world and preserves it from judgment. To be salt and light in communities is to sanctify them to God, even if only partially.

Sympathetic Intercession
One of the most precious elements of Christ’s priesthood is that he is a sympathetic priest, and that he, being human, is on our side even in our weakness (Hebrews 4:15). It is in this spirit of gentleness and sympathy that he intercedes on our behalf before the Father. And in the same way, we ought to offer intercessions for each other and for the world.

The notion of being a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Exodus 19:6, 1 Peter 2:9) is generally taken in a fairly individualistic way. For theologically legitimate and pastorally understandable reasons, the ‘priesthood of all believers’ was a key reformational doctrine that sought to invite ordinary Christians (or should that be non-Ordinary believers, i.e. the laity? 10/10 pun) to take advantage of the fact that they do not need the mediation of an ordained priesthood to access God. This has somewhat obscured the fact that when Peter uses the phrase, it is with reference to the fact that our priesthood is not private, but given in order to proclaim the excellencies of Christ. The priesthood of all believers is not a doctrine to isolate me in private devotion, but to put me in the service of all people, as a priest on their behalf. It is in this way that, just as Aaron represented the people of Israel, we too bear the burdens of others (Galatians 6:2). Being a nation of priests should lead us more quickly into corporate prayer than individual.

As a nation of priests, we also intercede of behalf of the whole world, and bear their sins ourselves. We pray for those in authority, not just in the hopes of a quiet life (1 Tim 2:1-4), but as a function of our priestly vocation in the world, to represent sinners before God. In suffering persecution, we are called to bear the sins of the world in our own body, and do not retaliate, but continue to intercede for our persecutors.

As I have been reflecting on this, it has challenged me to consider the way in which I pray for the world and the sins of the world. While there is still a place for imprecatory prayers against the wicked, I believe we should still more readily offer supplications with tears, echoing the words of our Saviour: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ When we recognise that our struggle is not so much against ‘sinners’ as the Power of Sin under which they have been enslaved, that is, that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, then our prayers for sinners — Jihadists, abortionists, the governments of Western democracies illegally invading sovereign nations, sweatshop owners grinding the poor, the big businesses that destroy the environment for profit, etc., etc. — will be prayers on behalf of the best spiritual interests of those currently under the power of sin. We will be praying for them, not simply against them.

Part III: The Kingly Community
To say the Church has a kingly task in the world might make it sound like I want a total union of throne and altar, something between the Papal States and the current Iranian set up. That isn’t quite my vision. Rather, in thinking of the Church as a Kingly community, I have in mind the virtues and tasks associated with Kings in the Scriptures, especially wisdom, justice, and worship. At the centre of our Scriptures are two books associated with the two greatest kings of Israel, the Psalms and the Proverbs (we get the bonus books of Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs associated with Solomon). Neither of those books are entirely by the king associated with them, but the figure of David looms large in the Psalter, and likewise Solomon in the Proverbs. The Psalms and the Proverbs are perhaps the prime places to consider the tasks of the King, as David leads Israel in worship, and as Solomon instructs his son ‘in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity’.

Worship with King David
The Psalms, the treasury of David, is a collection of hymns and spiritual encompassing the full range of human experience, bringing joys and sorrows before the Lord, giving an example of how to live all of life in front of God. Though the Psalms do provide rich resources for the weeping and beleaguered (as David himself was often both), the dominant not is worship. Consider the Psalms of Ascent, the Hallel, and the climatic final five, with their repeated refrain: Hallelujah. It is significant that this hymn book is associated with David, as music becomes an expression of dominion and a weapon of war in the hands and mouth of the king and the people of God.

The Church is a community called to worship, called to ‘proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (1 Peter 2:9) Perhaps strangely, this is largely done through music. The Psalms are one of our most important resources for understanding the worship the LORD desires, and it is that we sing to him. Of course, there is a sense in which all of life is offered to God as worship (see above, on our priestly work of sacrifice), and there is a horizontal dimension to congregational singing, but the traffic is primarily vertical. Ephesians 5:19 exhorts us to ‘[address] one another in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.’ Consider how many of the Psalms are addressed directly to God, and it is clear that the songs of the Church are primarily for the purpose of worshipping our maker. To state it briefly: worship must be a priority for the people of God, worship sincerely offered, and, in as much as we are able, skilfully played. Sunday services should not be oriented primarily towards humanity, either Christians or non-Christians, but towards worshipping God.

The Proverbs also encompass a full range of human experience, but from an earthier angle. David brings all of life before God, Solomon brings God into all of life. The Proverbs are, as you would expect, full of good advice, but their importance goes beyond that. Whatever pearls of wisdom are in there come in the context of a King giving his son, the heir apparent, instructions on how to rule. This is why a repeated theme is that of wise judgment, and in dealing in fairness and equity. The link between wisdom and rule is somewhat obscured in English, with the two words appearing unrelated, though we do speak of people having ‘good judgment’. The link is clearer in the original Hebrew and modern Semitic languages more closely related to it, such as Arabic, where the stem h-k-m lies at the root of words such as wise man (hakeem) and wisdom (hikma), as well as rule (hakam), court (mahkama), verdict (hukm), and more. The point is this: wisdom, that virtue most important for kings, is a social virtue. It isn’t for inward reflection for attaining nirvana, but for the ordering of society, and the fulfilling of the creation mandate to rule over all the earth.

Along with worship, the second task of Kings is the exercising of wisdom and right judgment. This is why some form of social justice is necessary within the Church. I’d be pretty open to what precisely that looks like, as there’s obvious a huge spectrum of views on what is rather nebulously called ‘Social Justice’ within the Church. There must be, somewhere, however, a commitment to seeing the generous rule of Jesus Christ played out in interpersonal relationships. King Lemuel’s mother taught him to ‘open [his] mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy’ (Prov. 31:9), and if the Church is means by which Christ will judge the world (1 Cor. 6:2), then we are the heirs of this exhortation. Charity begins at home, and the first outworking of that is ensuring that all Christians are well provided for. Sadly, the way in which the housing markets work results in some rich churches and some poor churches. It can be easy to be in a rich church and see no problem—we’re all taken care of—but we ought to have the same mindset of the early church raising money for Jerusalem. If we’re all well-heeled within, let’s look outside the parish, even outside the nation, and seek those in need for the sake of blessing them.

Prophet, Priest, or King? Finding the Balance
It’s important that all three of these are maintained. Many people, myself included, get very excited about the prophetic task of confronting the world in their sin (or, if we are honest, talking about how dreadful the world is to other Christians), but give less time to our priestly task: weeping for the sins of the world, bearing them before God, and asking him to have mercy, even on our enemies. We must balance kingly and priestly in order that we, like Christ, may both exercise discipline, but with pity and sympathy towards those who struggle. The offices of prophet and king be kept in touch with each other to prevent falling into hypocrisy, calling others to repentance without its presence within our own community.

Who is sufficient for these things? Ultimately no one person besides our Lord is sufficient for all of them. Yet Jesus Christ charged his body as a whole to continue and fulfil his work in the world, so it is not quite necessary that all individual Christians will exercise all of these roles in equal measure. And yet, as a body joined to Christ and animated by his spirit, we will grow up in every way into him who is the head.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: