I. Introduction: The Prophetic Office


1. THE IDEA OF THE OFFICES IN HISTORY. It has become customary to speak of three offices in connection with the work of Christ, namely the prophetic, the priestly, and the kingly office. While some of the early Church Fathers already speak of the different offices of Christ, Calvin was the first to recognize the importance of distinguishing the three offices of the Mediator and to call attention to it in a separate chapter of his Institutes.[Bk. II, Chap. XV.] Among the Lutherans Gerhard was the first to develop the doctrine of the three offices, Quenstedt regarded the threefold distinction as rather unessential and called attention to the fact that some Lutheran theologians distinguished only two offices, combining the prophetical with the priestly office. Since the days of the Reformation the distinction was quite generally adopted as one of the commonplaces of theology, though there was no general agreement as to the relative importance of the offices, nor as to their interrelation. Some placed the prophetical, others the priestly, and still others the kingly, office in the foreground. There were those who applied the idea of a chronological succession to them, and thought of Christ functioning as prophet during his public ministry on earth, as priest in his final sufferings and death on the cross, and as king now that He is seated at the right hand of God. Others, however, correctly stressed the fact that He must be conceived as functioning in His threefold capacity both in His state of humiliation and in His state of exaltation. The Socinians really recognized only two offices: Christ functioned as prophet on earth, and functions as king in heaven. While they also spoke of Christ as priest, they subsumed His priestly under His kingly work, and therefore did not recognize His earthly priesthood.

In the Lutheran Church considerable opposition appeared to the doctrine of the three offices of Christ. Ernesti gives a summary of the objections that were raised. According to him the division is a purely artificial one; the terms prophet, priest, and king are not used in Scripture in the sense implied in this division; it is impossible to discriminate the one function clearly from the other in the work of Christ; and the terms as used in Scripture are applied to Christ only in a tropical sense, and therefore should not have precise meanings affixed to them, designating particular parts of the work of Christ. In answer to this it may be said that there is little force in the criticism of the use of the terms, since they are used throughout the Old Testament as designations of those who in the offices of prophet, priest, and king typified Christ. The only really significant criticism is due to the fact that in Christ the three offices are united in one person. The result is that we cannot sharply discriminate between the different functions in the official work of Christ. The mediatorial work is always a work of the entire person; not a single work can be limited to any one of the offices. Of the later Lutheran theologians Reinhard, Doederlein, Storr and Bretschneider rejected the distinction. Ritschl also objected to it, and held that the term “vocation” should take the place of the misleading word “office.” He further regarded the kingly function or activity of Christ as primary, and the priestly and prophetic as secondary and subordinate, the former indicating man’s relation to the world, and the latter, his relation to God. He further stressed the fact that the prophetic and priestly kingship should be asserted equally of the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation. Haering follows Ritschl in his denial of the three offices, and in his emphasis on calling. Modern theology is averse to the whole idea, partly because it dislikes the terminology of the schools, and partly because it refuses to think of Christ as an official character. It is so much in love with Christ as the ideal Man, the loving Helper, and the Elder Brother, so truly human, that it fears to consider Him as a formal mediatorial functionary, since this would be apt to dehumanize Him.

2. IMPORTANCE OF THE DISTINCTION. The distinction of the three offices of Christ is a valuable one and ought to be retained, in spite of the fact that its consistent application to both of the states of Christ is not always easy and has not always been equally successful. The fact that Christ was anointed to a threefold office finds its explanation in the fact that man was originally intended for this threefold office and work. As created by God, he was prophet, priest, and king, and as such was endowed with knowledge and understanding, with righteousness and holiness, and with dominion over the lower creation. Sin affected the entire life of man and manifested itself not only as ignorance, blindness, error, and untruthfulness; but also as unrighteousness, guilt, and moral pollution; and in addition to that as misery, death, and destruction. Hence it was necessary that Christ, as our Mediator, should be prophet, priest, and king. As Prophet He represents God with man; as Priest He represents man in the presence of God, and as King He exercises dominion and restores the original dominion of man. Rationalism recognizes only His prophetic office; Mysticism, only His priestly office; and Chiliasm places a one-sided emphasis on His future kingly office.



a. The terms used in Scripture. The Old Testament uses three words to designate a prophet, namely, nabhi, ro’eh, and chozeh. The radical meaning of the word nabhi is uncertain, but it is evident from such passages as Ex. 7:1 and Deut. 18:18 that the word designates one who comes with a message from God to the people. The words ro’eh and chozeh stress the fact that the prophet is one who receives revelations from God, particularly in the form of visions. These words are used interchangeably. Other designations are “man of God”, “messenger of the Lord”, and “watchman”. These appellatives indicate that the prophets are in the special service of the Lord, and watch for the spiritual interests of the people. In the New Testament the word prophetes is used, which is composed of pro and phemi. The preposition is not temporal in this case. Consequently, the word prophemi does not mean “to speak beforehand”, but “to speak forth”. The prophet is one who speaks forth from God. From these names, taken together, we gather that a prophet is one who sees things, that is, who receives revelations, who is in the service of God, particularly as a messenger, and who speaks in His name.

b. The two elements combined in the idea. The classical passages, Ex. 7:1 and Deut. 18:18 indicate that there are two elements in the prophetic function, the one passive, and the other active, the one receptive, and the other productive. The prophet receives divine revelations in dreams, visions, or verbal communications; and passes these on to the people, either orally, or visibly in prophetical actions, Num. 12:6-8; Isa. 6; Jer. 1:4-10; Ezek. 3:1-4,17. Of these two elements the passive is the most important, because it controls the active element. Without receiving, the prophet cannot give, and he cannot give more than he receives. But the active is also an integral element. One who receives a revelation is not yet necessarily a prophet. Think of Abimelech, Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar, who all received revelations. What constitutes one a prophet, is the divine calling, the instruction, to communicate the divine revelation to others.

c. The duty of the prophets. It was the duty of the prophets to reveal the will of God to the people. This might be done in the form of instruction, admonition and exhortation, glorious promises, or stern rebukes. They were the ministerial monitors of the people, the interpreters of the law, especially in its moral and spiritual aspects. It was their duty to protest against mere formalism, to stress moral duty, to urge the necessity of spiritual service, and to promote the interests of truth and righteousness. If the people departed from the path of duty, they had to call them back to the law and to the testimony, and to announce the coming terror of the Lord upon the wicked. But their work was also intimately related to the promise, the gracious promises of God for the future. It was their privilege to picture the glorious things which God had in store for His people. It is also evident from Scripture that the true prophets of Israel typified the great coming prophet of the future, Deut. 18:15, cf. Acts 3:22-24, and that He was already functioning through them in the days of the Old Testament, I Pet. 1:11.

2. DISTINCTIONS APPLIED TO THE PROPHETICAL WORK OF CHRIST. Christ functions as prophet in various ways:

a. Both before and after the incarnation. The Socinians were mistaken in limiting the prophetical work of Christ to the time of His public ministry. He was active as prophet even in the old dispensation, as in the special revelations of the angel of the Lord, in the teachings of the prophets, in whom He acted as the spirit of revelation (I Pet. 1:11), and in the spiritual illumination of believers. He appears in Proverbs 8 as wisdom personified, teaching the children of men. And after the incarnation He carries on His prophetical work in His teachings and miracles, in the preaching of the apostles and of the ministers of the Word, and also in the illumination and instruction of believers as the indwelling Spirit. He continues His prophetical activity from heaven through the operation of the Holy Spirit. His teachings are both verbal and factual, that is, He teaches not only by verbal communications, but also by the facts of revelation, such as the incarnation, His atoning death, the resurrection, and ascension; and even during the Old Testament period by types and ceremonies, by the miracles of the history of redemption, and by the providential guidance of the people of Israel.

b. Both immediately and mediately. He exercised His prophetical office immediately, as the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament period, and as the incarnate Lord by His teachings and also by His example, John 13:15; Phil. 2:5; I Pet. 2:22. And He exercised it mediately through the operation of the Holy Spirit, by means of the teachings of the Old Testament prophets, and of the New Testament apostles, and exercises it even now through the indwelling Spirit in believers, and by the agency of the ministers of the gospel. This also means that He carries on His prophetical work both objectively and externally and subjectively and internally by the Spirit, which is described as the Spirit of Christ.

3. SCRIPTURE PROOF FOR THE PROPHETIC OFFICE OF CHRIST. Scripture testifies in more than one way to the prophetical office of Christ. He is foretold as a prophet in Deut. 18:15, a passage that is applied to Christ in Acts 3:22,23. He speaks of Himself as a prophet in Luke 13:33. Moreover, He claims to bring a message from the Father, John 8:26-28; 12:49,50; 14:10,24; 15:15; 17:8,20, foretells future things, Matt. 24:3-35; Luke 19:41-44, and speaks with singular authority, Matt. 7:29. His mighty works served to authenticate His message. In view of all this it is no wonder that the people recognized Him as a prophet, Matt. 21:11,46; Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 3:2; 4:19; 6:14; 7:40; 9:17.

4. MODERN EMPHASIS ON THE PROPHETIC OFFICE OF CHRIST. It is one of the main characteristics of the liberal school, both of the older liberalism, represented by Renan, Strauss, and Keim, and of the later liberalism, represented by such men as Pfleiderer, Weinel, Wernle, Wrede, Juelicher, Harnack, Bouset, and others, that it places the chief emphasis on Jesus as a teacher. His significance as such is emphasized to the exclusion of the other aspects of His person and work. There is a rather marked difference, however, between these two branches of liberalism. According to the older liberalism Jesus derives all His significance from His teachings, but according to the later liberalism it is the unique personality of Jesus that lends weight to His teachings. This is undoubtedly a welcome advance, but the gain is not as great as it may seem. In the words of La Touche: “Indeed, its recognition of the real significance of His personality rather than His teaching is little more than an exaltation of pedagogy by example over pedagogy by precept.” Christ is after all only a great teacher. Present day Modernism is entirely under the sway of this liberal school. Even in Barthian theology there is an emphasis which might seem to bring it very much in line with modern theology. Walter Lowrie correctly says: “It is characteristic of the Barthian Theology that it thinks predominantly of the Mediator as Revealer.”[Our Concern with the Theology of Crisis, p. 152.] We are told repeatedly by Barth and Brunner that the revelation is the reconciliation, and sometimes it seems as if they regard the incarnation as in itself already the reconciliation. Then again the reconciliation is represented as the revelation. In the recent Symposium on Revelation Barth says: “Jesus Christ is the revelation, because in His existence He is the reconciliation. ... The existence of Jesus Christ is the reconciliation, and therefore the bridging of the gulf that has opened here.”[pp. 55 f.] The cross is sometimes defined as the revelation of the absolute contradiction, the final conflict between this world and the other. Consequently Zerbe says that the death of Christ, according to Barth, is not exactly an atonement of the second person of the Godhead for the sin of the world, but “a message of God to man, indeed the final message; the fundamental negation; the judgment on all human possibility, especially the religious.” But while it is true that in Barthian theology the Mediator is primarily the Revealer, this does not mean that it fails to do justice to His sacrificial and atoning work.[Cf. especially Brunner, The Mediator, Chapters XVII-XXI.] Sydney Cave even says in his The Doctrine of of the Work of Christ: “For Barth the cross is central in the Christian message. ‘Everything shines in the light of His death, and is illuminated by it.’”[p. 244.]