All societies that exist – regardless of their type of government (democratic, monarchy, socialist, etc.) – must have people in positions of leadership. The roles of those distinct leaders shape the very fabric which defines the society itself.
When the Israelites were rescued by God and they came out of slavery from Egypt, they were a brand-new nation which had to grow up fast regarding its political structure. Of course, God helped them in this process, he immediately gave them a law, a set of rules and guidelines for them to live by. He also knew that they needed established roles for leaders, so he established three kinds of officials: kings, priests, and prophets.
The role of the king was to bring peace from within: by establishing order amongst the Israelites, and peace from without: by protecting the nation from its enemies. The king initially was God himself, it was to be a theocracy. Yet Israel quickly rejected God as their king, they wanted a human king like the nations around them. So God allowed them to appoint human kings which proved to be disastrous – for the very first selected king was Saul, who did not lead the people well. Only a handful of the 42 different kings which reigned actually did good, and even those that did good had their flaws.
The role of the prophet was to be God’s spokesperson before the nation. They were like messengers. When God wanted to communicate something special to his people, the prophet was to deliver the exact news that God wanted them to hear. They generally reminded the people of the covenant that they had made with God.
Finally, the priests were a special group of people who were to act as a bridge between a perfect, holy God and a population which was full of imperfection. They were to maintain the relationship between God and the masses. They interceded and acted on behalf of the people before God. Amongst the priests, there was a High Priest, who was to enter the holiest place of the tabernacle once a year (The day of atonement) and confess the sins of the whole nation. Sadly, the Priests became corrupt and used their role for their own gain.
In the time right before Jesus was born, Israel was in desperate need of some good leadership in its society. They had no king as they were not a free state. There were no prophets, as God had grown tired of sending his messengers over and over, only for the people to reject the message. The priests were as corrupt as could be.
This was the case for centuries. In Jewish writings between 400 b.C. and 0, there is much said about their longings for a glorious king, a righteous priest, and a powerful prophet.
But God had his own plan, both for Israel and all the other people groups of the world. He would come as king, prophet, and priest. Jesus took on the role of all three. In fact, he not only fulfilled the three roles, he was the perfect king, prophet, and priest. He was supreme in all three compared to the other humans that assumed these roles. The kings, prophets, and priests in the Old Testament all had their flaws, whereas Christ did not. Moreover, the humans holding these roles only did so for a short while, yet Christ holds these roles forever.
He is a perfect king because he has ultimate power – both from within and from without. He has power to hold his church together and bring individuals to salvation and he also has power over all our enemies. He is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
He is a perfect priest because he separates the gap between us and God. In 1 Timothy 2:5 we read: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” The words of 1 John 2:1 are also comforting: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” The clearest passage on Christ being a superior High Priest comes to us in Hebrews:
“Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” (7:23-28)
Finally, in the office of prophet, Jesus was supreme because he was not just a spokesperson chosen by God, he was God himself. The words he uttered were all direct news from God. He definitely had news to tell – for he was establishing a new kind of kingdom available for all people. Much like the prophets of old, he was also for the most part rejected.
Many theologians all throughout history have commented on Christ fulfilling these three roles (Eusebius, John Calvin, John Owen, the Roman Catholic Church, Charles Hodge, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Wayne Grudem, and you can even find an article about it on Wikipedia!).
In conclusion, I leave you with the words of Charles Spurgeon:
“Take Jesus in his different characters and you will see a marvelous variety—Prophet, Priest, King, Husband, Friend, Shepherd. Consider him in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, second advent; view him in his virtue, gentleness, courage, self-denial, love, faithfulness, truth, righteousness—everywhere he is a bundle of preciousness.” from Morning and Evening: Daily Readings, morning, April 13.
Questions to Consider:
Consider further how Jesus acts on your behalf as king, prophet and priest.
For further reading:
Jesus' Three Offices: Prophet, Priest, and King, an article by the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.
John Owen’s Two Short Catechisms (scroll down to chapters 11-13, where he treats the three offices of Christ)
Jesus Christ: Our Prophet, Priest, and King, An article on the three offices by Ligonier Ministries