“Let’s Talk about Jesus” Our Prophet, Priest and King
Recently here someone chided me for not talking about Jesus enough. Well, in my own defense, my whole and entire reason for criticizing Calvinism (as well as other wrong theologies) is Jesus. Jesus as God incarnate, the perfect and yet understandable revelation of God, God’s character and will, forms the foundation and center of my whole theology. I thought I had made that clear, but apparently not explicitly enough for him.
So let me say it once again: For me Jesus Christ is God and Savior, the perfect revelation of God in humanity, the “human face of God,” the divine in humanity, the mediator between God and humanity, the foundation and center of all Christian faith and thought, the key to understanding history and all reality including myself as sinner saved by grace.
That is my confession as a Christian theologian.
Of course, much more could and should be said, has been said (by me) and will be said.
One aspect of my own Pietist-Pentecostal-informed spirituality is the centrality of Jesus Christ as not only God, Lord, master, but also as friend. To be sure, he is a unique friend, unlike any other friend, but also and at the same time still and nevertheless friend to those who obey his command which is to love him and each other. None of us do this perfectly, yet he remains our friend insofar as we seek this disposition and action from our hearts. And this is a condition he will give us if we ask him for it.
I grew up in a church and large, extended family (of many denominations!) that sang and talked frequently about Jesus our friend. Jesus was a member of our household. He was always there, watching, waiting, listening, even speaking. Intimacy with Jesus was part and parcel of our spiritual ethos. Yet, from earliest age I knew Jesus not only as friend but also as Lord and master.
I grew up having conversations with Jesus; I still do that. I wake up many mornings with a hymn or gospel song on my mind and in my heart, even on my lips, and that begins a day-long conversation with Jesus. “Friendship with Jesus, fellowship divine. O what blessed, sweet communion; Jesus is a friend of mine.” That is at the heart of my spirituality and informs my theology. This friend of mine is someone who reveals the heart of God to me and I know him as someone who would never create anyone for eternal torment. He is not “nice,” but he is good; he is not “safe,” but he is kind. He gives me comfort and affliction in needed measure—like a true and good friend.
I have trouble relating to fellow Christians who do not know or want to know that intimacy with Jesus that lies at the center of my Christian spirituality. Mere orthodoxy does not interest me; nor does “relevance to culture.” Both have some value, but they are not crucial to knowing God in the way God wants to be known—in communion through what Emil Brunner called “I-Thou encounter.”
I respect fellow Christians of a more liturgical and contemplative spirituality, but I never quite understand their liturgical worship or mysticism. I’m not putting them down, but I confess to being bemused and perplexed by them. They do not enhance my spirituality which revolves almost exclusively around conversional piety—“personal relationship with Jesus.”
One aspect of Reformed tradition and theology that connects well with my Jesus-centered spirituality is understanding Jesus as prophet, priest and king. As a child I first encountered this “threefold office of Christ” through the frequently sung hymn “Praise him, praise him…prophet and priest and king.” Later, in seminary, I encountered this rubric for understanding “the work of Jesus Christ” first in volume two of Brunner’s Dogmatics and then in Calvin’s Institutes.
My friend Jesus is also, and before being my personal friend, God’s uniquely chosen and anointed prophet to humanity—more than any previous prophet in that he is God revealing himself to humanity. He is greater than any merely human prophet and yet fulfills that office perfectly as they (Moses through John the Baptist) fulfilled it imperfectly. As my divine-human friend, Jesus functions as prophet to me through his life of perfect obedience to God’s will and convicting, challenging voice correcting, encouraging and guiding me. I know his prophetic voice first and foremost through Scripture, the “cradle” that holds him (Luther), but I also hear his prophetic voice in the gospel preached, in testimonies from fellow Christians, in the voices of social critics calling for justice, in works of devotional literature and in that “still, small voice” that speaks to me with correction, encouragement and guidance in my own heart and mind.My friend Jesus is also, and before being my personal friend, God’s uniquely chosen and anointed priest for humanity—more than any human priest (mediator) before or after him. He voluntarily offered his life for and for all sinners, reconciling us to God by his sacrificial life and death. His atoning death is the center of everything—including history itself. Apart from it I and everyone would be lost; because of it we all have hope for life abundant and free. I love to meditate on the cross, sing about the cross, hear the message of the cross preached and even see re-enactments of the cross as in “passion plays” which were more common when I was a child. (Our church and most like it performed passion plays every year on the Sunday before Easter. On Easter Sunday we would sing triumphantly “Up from the grave he arose!”)
My friend Jesus is also, and before being my personal friend, God’s uniquely chosen and anointed king for humanity—greater than any human ruler, lord or master. Jesus rose from death, conquering fear of death for all who trust in him, and will return to earth as messiah bringing perfect peace, justice and prosperity for all people. In the meantime, in the “time between the times,” the “already but not yet” situation, he is king by right and intervenes with conquering power over sin, death and the devil when the church prays.
The gospel hymn “One Day” expresses this threefold offices of my friend Jesus so beautifully:
One day when Heaven was filled with His praises, One day when sin was as black as could be, Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin, Dwelt among men, my Example is He!
Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me; Buried, He carried my sins far away; Rising, He justified freely forever; One day He’s coming—O glorious day!
One day they led Him up Calvary’s mountain, One day they nailed Him to die on the tree; Suffering anguish, despised and rejected: Bearing our sins, my Redeemer is He!
One day they left Him alone in the garden, One day He rested, from suffering free; Angels came down o’er His tomb to keep vigil; Hope of the hopeless, my Savior is He!
One day the grave could conceal Him no longer, One day the stone rolled away from the door; Then He arose, over death He had conquered; Now is ascended, my Lord evermore!
One day the trumpet will sound for His coming, One day the skies with His glories will shine; Wonderful day, my belovèd ones bringing; Glorious Savior, this Jesus is mine!
This hymn by evangelist and theologian J. Wilbur Chapman (d. 1918) expresses my faith and the center of my spiritual life. It also expresses the story at the heart of my theology-the true story of God with us in the man Jesus who is still alive as God’s perfect prophet, priest and king living in and with us by our faith in him.
This could be enough to unify all evangelical Christians; I wish it were, I wish it were. Unfortunately, there are those evangelical Christians for whom it is never enough. One must adopt their whole systematic theology to be considered truly, authentically evangelical and a fulfilled Christian. That theology is Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology—even when they don’t know it by that name. (Their theological leaders know it but make it sound as if it’s simply “the Bible” and “the gospel.)
Then, on the other hand, there are those evangelical Christians who have “risen above” all “trite talk” of Jesus as “friend” as intrinsically trivializing. In light of John 15 (and my own spirituality) I simply don’t understand that perspective. Jürgen Moltmann, a German theologian who has greatly influenced me, emphasizes the desire of God to be our friend through Jesus Christ. Every concept can be and is trivialized by someone, somewhere. Our task, my task, is to retrieve good, biblical concepts that have been trivialized by others and to avoid doing that myself. I’m sure there are some reading this who think I have trivialized it in my own spirituality and testimony, but all I can say to them is that they are not my judges. He is my friend and judge. I will rest in him and be judged by him.