Although Jesus Christ has been memorialized by preachers as priest, prophet and king at least since the Lutheran theologian Philip Melancthon first joined these distinguished titles, nowhere in Scripture does Jesus take these honors to himself.
Jesus certainly never refers to himself as a priest since to do so would have joined him in the popular mind to the Judaic priesthood derived from Aaron from whom Jesus was clearly not descended. Nor does Jesus ever refer to himself as a prophet. For Jesus classical Jewish prophecy ended with John the Baptist, that “more than a prophet” who betokened the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, Christ himself. And Jesus frankly eschewed the label king, bluntly reminding Pilate that his kingdom “was not of this world.” Pilate’s placard atop the Cross, “King of the Jews,” was intended as a slur not a statement.
Jesus’ self-deprecation notwithstanding, Christ was the pre-eminent prophet. No one has ever spoken truth to power more effectively than Jesus Christ. “This is why I was born, this is why I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth,” Christ informs the procurator. Neither Pharisee nor Sadducee, neither Herod nor high priest, would cause Jesus to mince his words. “Let him who has ears, hear,” and let the chips fall where they may. In this sense, believers rightly call Jesus a prophet.
Certainly Jesus had no eye on restoring the throne of David his ancestral father nor would his ambitions lead him into a contest with the Emperor of Rome. He displayed no regal intentions. Yet Jesus did possess formidable authority. “Who is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?” questioned the disciples. “And all were amazed that he spoke with authority and not like the Scribes and Pharisees,” was the observation of the crowds. The evil spirits trembled at Christ’s word. His final crown of thorns was more ironic than mocking. His was an unspoken but effective kingship. In this light, Jesus is rightly called a king.
Jesus had more reason to excuse himself from the label priest other than his Davidic descent In New Testament times the Jewish priesthood had become divided between aristocratic upper class priests with political and social prominence and lower class priests who enjoyed little respect. In fact, the devout Qumran Jewish community separated itself from the Jerusalem priesthood precisely because of their ill repute. Probably with this in mind, the four Gospel accounts never allude to Jesus as a priest. Nor does he ever assume this title himself. St. Peter would later refer to the Christian community as a “priestly people.” The late written Epistle to the Hebrews would more than once (chapters 2, 4 & 5) uniquely celebrate Christ as “the true high priest.” Rare references notwithstanding, the priestly office of Jesus Christ is made clear by his deeds if not by his declarations. Sharing man’s condition, Christ the priest could experience man’s pain and could intercede for his brothers. As a priest, Christ offered an atoning sacrifice by his death on the Cross, bringing about reconciliation, purification and sanctification for mankind. And Christ is pre-eminently the priest by entering into the heavenly Holy of Holies to offer a supreme sacrifice of praise. Jesus the priest might not have talked the talk but he did walk the walk.
The second reading from Hebrews this coming Sunday revels in the delights that await the believer in the life to come. First the author glories in approaching “Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Then he rejoices in greeting “the countless angels, the assembly of the firstborn, the spirits of the just and God himself the judge of all.” And finally the inspired writer takes great joy in meeting “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.” Here clearly the Letter to the Hebrews celebrates the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ who linked God and man in a new covenant. Similarly the Letter rejoices in the all-effectiveness of Christ’s priestly sacrifice which cries out to heaven more powerfully than even Abel’s avenged blood.
What Christ did not proclaim vocally, successive generations of believers have discerned spiritually through their reflections on his priestly, prophetic and kingly life and ministry.