Christ’s Threefold Office
Q. What offices doth Christ execute as our Redeemer?
A. 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.
Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 23
It was John Calvin who began to speak of Christ’s “threefold office” (prophet, priest, and king) as a means of understanding the person and work of Christ. Calvin devoted a chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (2.15.1–6) to setting forth the biblical data that demonstrates Jesus to be God’s consummate prophet, the great high priest, and all-powerful king.
The so-called “threefold office” was widely accepted as a helpful way to understand those Bible passages that speak of Christ’s saving work in both Testaments. The threefold office was soon a prominent theme in most Protestant confessions of faith and catechisms, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism speaks of the threefold office in Question & Answer 23.
You may recall the “Lordship Controversy” that raged within evangelicalism years ago. The subject of the debate was whether or not someone could “accept Jesus as his Savior” but not make him “Lord over his life.” While one side argued that it was biblically impossible to come to saving faith in Christ without submitting to His lordship (the correct position), the other side argued that this was to confuse faith with repentance, and, in effect, to deny justification by faith alone (an important concern).
While this debate has died down, Reformed Christians believe the problem arose from a lack of clarity about the offices of Christ. By setting forth Christ as Savior and Lord, the debate left untouched much of the biblical data about what Christ does to save us, and how His saving work applies to us today (as prophet, priest, and king). Yes, Jesus Christ is both Lord and Savior. And yes, we come to Christ as He reveals Himself to us in His Word, or we haven’t come to Christ. To speak of Christ as “Savior” and “Lord” are not the most helpful ways to frame His person and work.
The three offices of Christ are all prefigured in the Old Testament, and each of them points ahead to that one in whom those offices are gloriously fulfilled. In His office as mediator
(1 Tim. 2:5), Jesus exercises three specific functions.
First, Christ functions as God’s prophet, revealing to us the will of God, speaking in God’s name with God’s full authority. In a passage such as John 14:9, Jesus dares say of Himself: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses promised that God would send a final prophet to His people. In Acts 3:22–23, Peter applies that passage to Jesus. Jesus is God’s final and ultimate prophet, and His prophetic office continues on through the work of the Spirit, when He illumines our minds to understand and believe those things promised to us in His word.
As for Christ’s priestly office, Hebrews 5:1 defines for us what the high priest is to do for God’s people: “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” This very thing lies at the heart of Jesus’ redemptive work as it unfolds in the New Testament. In the case of Jesus, however, the priest is Himself the sacrifice for sin. Furthermore, His priestly office extends into the present age as He makes intercession for us (His people) with His Father in heaven. This can be seen in 1 John 2:1–2: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Lastly, regarding Christ’s kingly office, as the eternal Son of God whose throne is firmly established in heaven (Ps. 103:19), Christ rules over His people as well as over the heavens, the earth, and all creatures. In the Old Testament, the Davidic kingdom pointed ahead to Christ’s conquest over death and the grave. In 2 Samuel 7:12–14, Nathan tells David of God’s promise: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” In the famous Pentecost sermon of Acts 2, Peter tells us that this prophecy is fulfilled by Christ’s resurrection and ascension (vv. 30–33). Christ rules over all, as our risen and ascended Lord. He subdues our unruly hearts (sanctification) as well as ruling over all men and nations (providence).
If the debaters in the Lordship Controversy had considered the threefold office of Christ, the debate would have been over before it started. No one would have even thought to ask, “Can I accept Jesus as my prophet and priest, but not my king?”