Friday, July 08, 2011

“God of the Prophets, Bless the Prophets' Sons”

-Pastor as Prophet, Priest and King


While in many ways the Office of the Holy Ministry is diminished or undermined in modern Christian circles, there are still those of us who cherish this precious gift of Christ to His Church, for the purposes of preaching His word and administering His sacraments. No, everyone is not a minister, at least not everyone holds the Holy Office of the Ministry. Not everyone is given to preach and teach, and exercise the Power of the Keys.

But in seeking to defend the Office, we must not do so for the sake of the Office itself. For the Office only exists to serve Christ and His people, and in service to the Gospel. Therefore it is good to avoid the opposite error of “putting too much into the Office”, or ascribing to it honors and powers which our Lord himself does not. All too often our sinful nature would twist God's good gifts. It's very tempting for the pastor to allow his authority to become “power” and to wield it for selfish purposes.

With that in mind, however, I offer a perspective on the Office which incorporates the three-fold Office of Prophet, Priest, and King. What I mean to demonstrate, is that these Old Testament offices are reflected in the New Testament and modern day Office of the Holy Ministry, not only in its functions, but in its connection to the three-fold Office of Christ himself. This is not to add functions or aspects to the Ministry, but to recognize that which has always been there and draw out connections for a deeper understanding of this precious gift Christ gives to His church.

God of the Prophets, Bless the Prophet's Sons”

Perhaps at an ordination of installation of a pastor, or on some other occasion, you've sung the 1884 hymn by Reformed pastor Denis Wortman:

God of the prophets! Bless the prophets’ sons,
Elijah's mantle, o'er Elisha cast.
Each age its solemn task may claim but once;
Make each one nobler, stronger, than the last.

Anoint them prophets! Make their ears attent
To Thy divinest speech; their hearts awake
To human need; their lips make eloquent
To gird the right and every evil break.

Anoint them priests! Strong intercessors, they
For pardon, and for charity and peace.
Ah, if with them the world might, now astray,
Find in our Lord from all its woes release!

Anoint them kings; aye, kingly kings, O Lord.
Anoint them with the Spirit of Thy Son.
Theirs not a jeweled crown, a blood stained sword;
Theirs, by sweet love, for Christ a kingdom won.

Make them apostles, heralds of Thy cross,
Forth may they go to tell all realms Thy grace;
Inspired of Thee, may they count all but loss,
And stand at last with joy before Thy face.

O mighty age of prophet kings, return!
O truth, O faith, enrich our urgent time!
Lord Jesus Christ, again with us sojourn;
A weary world awaits Thy reign sublime.

The hymn can be found in the current Lutheran Service Book hymnal at #682. The language has been updated and the last verse omitted, no doubt to avoid any chiliastic confusion:

God of the prophets, bless the prophets' sons;

Elijah's mantle o'er Elisha cast.
Each age its solemn task may claim but once;
Make each one nobler, stronger than the last.

Anoint them prophets, men who are intent
To be your witnesses in word and deed,
Their hearts aflame, their lips made eloquent,
Their eyes awake to every human need.

Anoint them priests, strong intercessors they,
For pardon and for love and hope and peace,
That, through their pleading, guilty sinners may
Find Jesus' mercy and from sin release.

Anoint them kings, yes, kingly kings, O Lord.
Anoint them with the Spirit of Your Son.
Theirs not a jeweled crown, a blood-stained sword;
Theirs, by sweet love, for Christ a kingdom won.

Make them apostles, heralds of your cross;
Forth let them go to tell the world of grace.
Inspired by You, may they count all but loss
And stand at last with joy before Your face.

History of the threefold office distinction

We must note that the three-fold office of Christ, as an idea, does not originate with Lutheran theologians.

E.F. Karl Miller writes:

From the earliest times Jesus has been recognized as the representative of a twofold and yet unitary theocratic function, as king and priest. The spiritual kingdom of the Messiah has its foundation in the sacrifice of his life (Matt. xvi. 16-25, xx. 25-28). This thought may be traced f rom the second century to the time of the Reformation. But as early as Eusebius a threefold office is ascribed to Christ, that of prophet, priest, and king, and this is traceable to Jewish sources.

Miller goes on to explain that at the time of the Reformation, Christ as priest and king was roundly accepted. But John Calvin led the charge in adding the prophetic office back into the formulation. For some time there was debate in Lutheran circles as to the propriety of speaking in terms of the three-fold office. Later Lutherans, particularly Paul Gerhard, began to embrace the framework of the three-fold office.

Today, the casting of Christ in his three-fold office is regularly taught among Calvinists, Roman Catholics and Lutherans, alike.

Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation, published by CPH (and the go-to textbook for most of our LCMS catechetical instruction) devotes several pages to an explanation of the three-fold office of Christ.


While I can't disagree with any of our textbook definitions, it might also be helpful to add some other thoughts concerning each office and its role or function:

Prophet – We are shown that Christ preached, and still preaches, through the Gospel. So, the chief function of the prophet is to bear a message. Though modern connotations of prophecy entail “predicting the future”, just as often, prophets speak a word concerning the present reality. In all cases, the prophet speaks what he is given to speak, and therefore serves as a representative.

I've found it useful to use a “downward arrow” in describing the prophet's role of representing (speaking for) God to the people.

Priest – Our textbook explains that Christ is priest, in that he fulfilled the law in our stead, died in our place, and pleads for us before God. All well and good, and again, representative functions. In his active and passive obedience, he is our vicarious Atoner. His intercessory prayer “represents” us to the Father. Indeed, there is but one Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ.

But here, it is an “upward arrow”. As the priest offers up sacrifices and prayers, he also stands between God and man, but this time as representative of people to God.

So in a way, the priest is the opposite of the prophet. Or perhaps we could say they are complementary.

King- Modern American conceptions of monarchy are laden with negative connotations, mostly having to do with the power of law (and, in sinful hands, the abuse of such). Of course, Christ's kingly office holds no such negativity.

Our textbook outlines the “three kingdoms” of power, grace and glory, over which Christ the King reigns. Again, without disagreeing, I offer another understanding of this office through the lens of “Law and Gospel”, informed by the example of the Old Testament kings.

The Law function is obvious – rulership and authority. But how does a king function in a “good news” sort of way? The king, especially in Old Testament times, was expected to defend the kingdom. So David would ride to battle with his armies (and when he shirked this duty found himself in trouble with Bathsheba!) The king would even lay down his life to defend his kingdom, his people, from the enemy.

Likewise, the way Scripture speaks of the Old Testament kings as the “Shepherds of Israel”, clues us in. A shepherd protects the sheep, even as he leads and guides them. He drives off the predators, and provides for the sheep to be well-fed and watered. Here Christ is, of course, rightly seen as the Good Shepherd – a kingly function, for the leading and protecting (Law and Gospel) of His sheep.

One clue then, of Christ's desire for his ministers to reflect these same functions is his charge to Peter, “feed my sheep”. And so Lutheran ministers rightly are called “pastor”, that is, shepherd.

The Office of the Ministry as representative of Christ

Without re-establishing everything Lutherans teach about the Office of the Holy Ministry, we can first approach its exercise of the three-fold office by understanding that the Ministry is derived from Christ's own office(s). The 1981 CTCR document, “The Ministry - Offices, Procedures and Nomenclature” explains:

    2. The office of the public ministry is grounded in the ministry of Christ and is an extension of the apostolate established by Him.

    The office of the public ministry of the church is rooted and grounded in the ministry of Christ. He was the Suffering Servant, the God-man, who not only taught about God's love but completely satisfied the demands of God's holy Law by vicariously living a perfect life and dying a sacrificial death for our transgressions of God's Law. His priestly, prophetic, and royal actions (emphasis mine) are the essential content and power of the ministry of the church. God not only provided salvation and declared the whole world just for the sake of Christ, but He also provided the means of grace and the ministry of the Word and sacrament "to offer and apply to us this treasure of salvation" (LC II, 38).

Similarly, Jesus says, “he who receives you, receives me”. Also our liturgy confesses this connection when the pastor absolves, “in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ...” The pastor is a “little Christ” to his congregation, and in accord with his office, exercises rightful authority. But the authority of Christ is always used to serve others, not self. It is even the call to die for the sheep, if needed.

With all this in mind, let us consider:

The Pastor as Prophet – Perhaps the Old Testament office most easily aligned with the pastor, for its concern to speak the Word of God is the same. While an Old Testament prophet received that Word in “many and various ways”, we constrain ourselves to the canonical books of the Bible. But in his preaching, the faithful, prophetic pastor proclaims that word he is given – for the present and the future – and points always to the ultimate prophet, even the Living Word, himself, Jesus Christ.

The pastor is the under-prophet of the Ultimate Prophet, and always subjects his word to the Living Word.

The Pastor as Priest - “strong intercessors, they” they hymn declares. As priest, the pastor speaks the prayers of the people in representative fashion during the public services, in the liturgy. In fact, any time the pastor faces the altar, back to the congregation, it is not to be rude – but likely to express the priestly character of his actions at that point - representing you to God.

But his intercession does not stop there, as the faithful pastor prays for his sheep in all their troubles and circumstances. There's no indication in Scripture that the prayers of a pastor have any more weight than of the laity (though, “the prayer of a righteous man has great effect”). A pastor must be careful not to play in to this cultural misnomer. But as a man of God called to care for a flock, it only makes sense that he would pay particular attention to prayer on their behalf, whether they know it or not.

And while he can not personally stand in their place, coram deo, for salvation – he does sacrifice worldly comforts to bring the sheep to the great High Priest, who offered Himself on the cross. Here, perhaps, we see the greatest fulfillment of priestliness, a model we do well to reflect in our showing of love to the people in our flock.

The pastor is the under-priest of the Great High Priest, of the Order of Melchizedek.

The Pastor as King – Yes, a pastor is a king. But like Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world. Following Christ, who taught that only the rulers of this world “lord it over” others, but, “not so with you!”. So putting aside our cautions about misused kingly authority, how is a pastor a king?

He handles the law, administering it. He speaks a word that curbs, shows sin, and rules. In his preaching, he points to that which God expects of us, and demands of us. Of course, we fail. And this may incite in us rebellion against the law-giver, killing the messenger because the message so hurts. But no matter. Kings have a solemn duty to uphold the law, and so will a faithful pastor.

But he will also protect the people. He will fight for them. He will identify the enemy (or enemies) and lead the charge. Our enemies are not flesh and blood, but the Devil the world, and our own sinful nature. Our defenses are given only by God (Ephesians 6). The breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, etc.

And our only offensive weapon is the sword of his word. As a king, the pastor wields the sword – not of the government to punish wrongdoers (Romans 13), but the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. It is that sword which issues from the mouth of Christ (Revelation 1). It is the Gospel, the power of God for salvation.

The pastor as king employs both Law and Gospel, in the pulpit, and in his dealings with those of the Kingdom. The pastor is an under-king of the King of Kings, and serves all in accord with His purposes.

Finally, just as with Christ, there is overlap and complementary function in the three offices, so too, it is with the pastor. But that is because the office of pastor is derived from the office of Christ, as a whole, not in three separate parts. These are simply a framework or a lens by which to view what Christ does in Himself, and how He serves His people through the Office He establishes.

Royal Priesthood?

Luther himself emphasized the Royal (kingly) Priesthood of all believers. Unfortunately this has often been used as a club over against the Holy Office. But that's not fair to either Luther or Holy Scripture.

The reality and importance of the Priesthood of All Believers does not negate the reality and importance of the Office of the Holy Ministry.

I would submit that within each Christian's vocation, he too has kingly, priestly, and even prophetic opportunities. But the chief distinction is that the pastor is called to exercise his authority publicly, on behalf of all. The individual Christian operates within the private realm, according to his own calling or station.

You may have occasion to witness (prophetic), or to protect another (kingly). Certainly, the priestly Christian intercedes for others- praying at all times for those in authority, for the sick, for any who are in need, even for unbelievers. In all these things, the same Christ who works through the Public Office works in the lives of his people.

For example, the Christian parent is prophet, priest and king to his child. The Christian husband is the same to his wife. Even as friends and neighbors we can find these Christ-like functions peeking through as we serve others in various ways.

Christ the Apostle/Pastor as Apostle

One final connected idea – brought about by verse 5 of our hymn, apostleship. Here we can find another useful office for understanding Christ, his pastors, and his people. While the narrow definition of “apostle” includes those specifically commissioned by Jesus (the 12, plus St. Paul), still there is an apostolic character to the Office of Pastor. The word, “apostle”, meaning, “sent one”, really should point us first of all to Christ – who was “sent” by the Father on his mission of redemption. Likewise the Holy Spirit is “sent” by the Father and Son according to his purposes, but especially to testify to Christ. The 12 apostles were sent, not only at the Great Commission, but also with authority to preach and cast out demons during Jesus' public ministry. In fact, the Christian church, as a whole, is “apostolic”, not only in its adherence to the teaching of the apostles, but also in that we are “sent” to the world with the Gospel.

So, too, the pastor is apostolic. He is sent. He is sent by God, by the Holy Spirit, by means of the external call of the congregation, to be pastor in a certain place. He is sent, and given an authority that is not his own, but belongs to Christ (as does all authority). He is sent to a certain people, a certain congregation, particularly. And in his sent-ness there is comfort for him, that his labor is not in vain. And in his sent-ness there is comfort for his sheep, that they receive Him who sent him.


Jesus Christ, our prophet, priest, and king – now rules from heaven, intercedes for us before God, and yet still proclaims His word to the lost world He once died to save. Through His pastors, He publicly exercises these same functions, for the good of His people. Lutherans need not shun this way of describing the work of God in our midst, for through the prism of these biblical offices, we gain greater appreciation of Christ who does all things well, and for us, and of the ministers he sends to stand in his stead. And rejoicing in the Gospel, give thanks to Him for these, among so many other good gifts.


Dr. Carl Fickenscher on Issues, Etc. "The Three-fold Office of Christ: Prophet, Priest and King"

For an Orthodox Presbyterian take on “Pastor as Prophet, Priest and King”

A sermon by Rev. Brian Vos, “Why are You Called a Christian?” (United Reformed Church)

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