The threefold office (Latin: munus triplex) of Jesus Christ is a Christian doctrine based upon the teachings of the Old Testament of which Christians hold different views. It was described by Eusebius and more fully developed by John Calvin.
In the Old Testament, the appointment of someone to any of these three positions could be sanctioned by anointing him by pouring oil over his head. Thus the term messiah, meaning "anointed one", is associated with the concept of the threefold office. While the office of king is that most frequently with the Messiah, the role of Jesus as priest, which involves intercession before God, is also prominent in the New Testament, being most fully explained in chapters 7 to 10 of the Book of Hebrews.
The three offices
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Eusebius worked out this threefold classification, writing: "And we have been told also that certain of the prophets themselves became, by the act of anointing, Christs in type, so that all these have reference to the true Christ, the divinely inspired and heavenly Word, who is the only high priest of all, and the only King of every creature, and the Father’s only supreme prophet of prophets." During the Reformation this concept played a substantial role in scholastic Lutheran Christology and in the christology of Reformed theologians such as John Calvin as well as that of John Wesley.
Walter A. Elwell claims that Christian theologians view all the other roles of Christ as falling under one of these three distinctions.
Christ is the mouthpiece of God as the Prophet, speaking and teaching the Word of God, infinitely greater than all prophets, who spoke for God and interpreted the will of God. The Old Testament prophet brought God’s message to the people. Christ, as the Word (John 1:1-18)/Logos is the Source of revelation. Accordingly, Jesus Christ never used the messenger formula, which linked the prophet’s words to God in the prophetic phrase, Thus says the Lord. Christ, being of the same nature, provides a definitive and true exposition of God.
The Word/Logos is Light. As the true Light (John 1:1-18), Jesus Christ exclusively enlightens humankind in the office of Prophet. Jesus affirmed his Divine identity and ultimate authority, revealing God to humanity, continuing His work into the future as the Light (Revelation 22:3).
- John 17:4 "I have glorified thee on earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do."
- John 14:24 "These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me."
- Acts 2:22 "Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, A man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know."
- Mark 6:4 But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.
- Luke 4:43 And he said unto them, I must preach the kingdom of God to other cities also: for therefore am I sent.
- Matthew 19:16-26 In these verses Jesus is not denying his divinity when he says "there is none good but one". Rather Jesus realized that the young man saw him as an excellent teacher but not as the promised Messiah the "Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace" of Isaiah 9:6 Therefore, instead of seeking to convince the young man that he was the Messiah, Jesus merely corrected the young man's notion of "goodness" as it pertained to achieving eternal life by stating "If thou wilt be perfect...come follow me". Thus as the prophet spoken of by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 - "The LORD thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken" - Jesus was telling the young man "if you would know how to attain eternal life, come follow me and I will show you" If in fact the young man had followed Jesus, he would have eventually seen how to obtain eternal life and seen that Jesus truly was the "one who was good" and would have along with the Apostle Thomas been quite willing to call Jesus "My Lord and my God". John 20:26-28 There are several instances in the Bible that suggest that Jesus' contemporaries regarded him as a prophet. After raising the widow's son at Nain in Luke 7:16, the witnesses say,"A great prophet has arisen among us!" In Luke 24:19, Jesus is called a prophet by the people who do not recognize him when they say,"The things about Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people".
Christ, whom believers draw near to in confidence, offered Himself as the sacrifice for humanity as High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). Old Testament priests declared the will of God, gave the covenant of blessing, and directed the processing of sacrifices. The priest represented humankind before God. While humankind took the office of priesthood in their weakness, Jesus holds the position with an indestructible power that overcomes the weakness of humanity as described throughout the book of Hebrews. As High Priest, Christ became one with humanity in human weakness, offered prayers to God, chose obedience through suffering, and sympathized with the struggles of humanity.
The atoning death of Christ is at the heart of His work as High Priest. Metaphors are used to describe His death on the cross, such as, "Christ, the Lamb of God, shed His blood on the cross as the sin offering for humankind." Christ made one sin offering as High Priest in contrast to the Old Testament priests, who continually offered sacrifices on behalf of humanity. Because of the work of Christ on the cross, humanity has the opportunity to have a living relationship with God. Conversely, the individuals that deny the work of God are described as dead in sin, without God and without hope. In traditional Christianity (the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican Church, Oriental Orthodox, and Assyrian Churches), it is believed that a priest, having received the Sacrament of Holy Orders through the laying on of hands, shares the one priesthood of Christ, and thus it is only priests who can offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
Christ, exalted High Priest, mediates the sin that estranges humankind from the fellowship of God. In turn, He has full rights to reign over the church and world as King. Christ sits at the right hand of God, crowned in glory as "King of kings and Lord of lords." God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church.
Reformed and Presbyterian traditions
Q. Why is he called "Christ," meaning "anointed"?
A. Because he has been ordained by God the Father
- and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit to be
- our chief prophet and teacher
- who perfectly reveals to us
- the secret counsel and will of God for our deliverance;
- our only high priest
- who has set us free by the one sacrifice of his body,
- and who continually pleads our cause with the Father;
- and our eternal king
- who governs us by his Word and Spirit,
- and who guards us and keeps us
- in the freedom he has won for us.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains the role of Christ as redeemer in terms of the threefold office:
Q. 23: What offices doth Christ execute as our Redeemer?
- 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.
Q. 24: How doth Christ execute the office of a prophet?
- Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.
Q. 25: How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?
- Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us.
Q.26: How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
- Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.
(a) The prophetical office (munus, or officium propheticum) includes teaching and the miracles of Christ.
(b) The priestly office (munus sacerdotale) consists of the satisfaction made for the sins of the world by the death on the cross, and in the continued intercession of the exalted Savior for his people (redemptio et intercessio sacerdotalis).
(c) The kingly office (munus regium), whereby Christ founded his kingdom, defends his church against all enemies, and rules all things in heaven and on earth. The old divines distinguish between the reign of nature (regnum naturae sive potentiae), which embraces all things; the reign of grace (regnum gratiae), which relates to the church militant on earth; and the reign of glory (regnum gloriae), which belongs to the church triumphant in heaven.
The theologians who followed Luther and Melanchthon down to the middle of the seventeenth century treat Christ's saving work under the two heads of king and priest. Calvin, in the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), did the same, and it was not till the third edition (1559) and the Genevan Catechism that he fully presented the three offices. This convenient threefold division of the office of Christ was used by the theologians of both confessions during the seventeenth century. Ernesti opposed it, but Schleiermacher restored it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel in his threefold office of priest, prophet, and king."
In his 5th century Gospel harmony book Harmony of the Gospels Saint Augustine viewed the variations in the gospel accounts in terms of the different focuses of the authors on Jesus: Matthew on royalty, Mark on humanity, Luke on priesthood and John on divinity.
- Hist. eccl. 1.3.8, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (New York, 1890), 1:86.
- Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.15
- H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology Chapter 22 [resource online] (Nampa, Idaho: 1993-2005, accessed 3 June 2006); available from http://wesley.nnu.edu/holiness_tradition/wiley/wiley-2-22.htm
- Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001). 858
- Letham 1993, p. 143
- Brown 1986, p. 1107
- LaSor 1996, p. 221-230
- Rogers1998, p. 175
- Matthews 1993, p.187-198
- see Hebrews 2::17, 3:1, 4:14, 4:1-16, 5:1; 6:20; 7:1, 8:3, 9:1-10:39, and 13:11.
- Rev. 19:16 (NRSV)
- Eph. 1:20-23 (NRSV)
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 436, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1994 ISBN 0-89870-482-0
- Christology, Controversy and Community by David G. Horrell and Christopher M. Tuckett (8 Aug 2000) ISBN 9004116796 pages 37-40