A sermon by Rod Benson
A few years ago it was popular in some Christian circles to sport wristbands bearing the acronym WWJD (“What would Jesus do?”). But before we can truly imitate the life of Jesus in our decisions and actions, we need to know “Who is Jesus?” and “What does Jesus do?”
Two points to note as we begin. First, I am distinguishing today between the person and work of Jesus; between who he is and what he has done. But they are deeply interrelated subjects: each necessarily informs the other. Second, while we often focus on his death and resurrection, we should not overlook the whole of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels.
Notice not only that Jesus was human, but how he expressed his humanity. Who he is, and what he achieved through the cross and the empty tomb, are inseparable from the way he lived. If we ignore his choices and priorities, his personal relationships and spiritual practices, we miss much that is central in the life of Jesus for the shaping of our own ethics and spirituality.
Who was Jesus, and what does he do? We could profitably look at this topic for years and not plumb its depths, or its relevance to our daily lives and eternal destiny. I want to look briefly today at Jesus as prophet, priest and king par excellence; or, to put it another way, as revealer, reconciler and ruler.
- JESUS AS PREEMINENT PROPHET
As prophet, Jesus uniquely reveals God to us. As we listen and learn from him, we grow in wisdom and understanding. The Nicene Creed, a classic summary of Christian doctrine, has three lines on God the Father, four on the Holy Spirit, two on the church, two on eschatology, and 15 on Jesus. He is rather important to the Christian faith. In fact, Jesus Christ is what ultimately gives Christian doctrine its Christ-ian character. In history, Scripture and theology, everything points ultimately to Christ, and ultimately flows from Christ.
One of the central paradoxes of Christian faith is that Jesus of Nazareth is not only like God but actually is the eternal God; or, as my Baptist colleague Hershael York put it recently, “I worship a God who is a man, who was dead and now is alive and lives in heaven, but one day is coming back to earth on a white horse and will judge everyone.”
During the first 400 years of the church’s history, significant debates arose over two basic concerns. First, given that we cannot save ourselves, and only God can save us, if Jesus is not fully divine, then we are not saved. Second, given that our full humanity could be redeemed only by God becoming fully human, if Jesus was only partly human, then he redeemed only that part of who we are as persons.
Muslims as well as Christians believe that Jesus was a true prophet, channelling divine wisdom. But Christians believe much more: that, in Jesus Christ, we have
the remarkable self-revelation of God, where his unity with God is not compromised (the Council of Nicaea, 325) and the fullness of his humanity is not restricted (the Council of Chalcedon, 451). Jesus is fully God (one person of three in the Trinity) and fully human (bearing two natures, human and divine).
As the prophet who not only shares intimate fellowship with God the Father, but literally comes from the Father, in the power of the Spirit, Jesus is unique. Jesus transcends the classical prophetic office. He is the Word incarnate: not only the prophet who unfailingly and perfectly mediates God’s word, but the one to whom all of the true prophets of past and future generations point (see Jn 1:14; 14:6; cf Mt 7:29).
- JESUS AS GRACIOUS RECONCILER
Jesus is not only a prophet par excellence; he is our great high priest. In Jesus, God was at work reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19; cf Jn 14:9-10).
Physicists estimate that the universe is approximately 14 billion years old. Jesus is older. His life never had a beginning, and will never end. That in itself is hard to imagine, and full of wonder. Yet there is something more wonderful still: that the most important of all those 14 billion years, without doubt, for every person who has ever lived, was three decades two millennia ago, when God lived on earth in a human body, ate fish and bread, drank wine and water, bathed, told stories, went to the toilet, woke with sleep in his eyes, and died for our sins.
Not only that, but when God became incarnate in the baby to whom Mary gave birth in Bethlehem, he continued to sustain the universe. As John Calvin put it:
Here is something marvellous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning.
John Webster takes this thought further: the incarnation
is not simply revelation. It does not simply impart new knowledge of who God is, but effects a transformation of our reality. For in this man, humanity is both remade and given new possibilities. In his birth is our birth: our wasted ways are restored, our endless capacity to undo our own lives is itself undone.
Jesus changes everything. He mediates a covenant of grace between God and God’s people. He accomplishes what the Levitical priesthood foreshadowed but could never achieve. He transcends not only the classic prophetic office but the priestly office too. Jesus never sinned, so there was never a need to atone for his own sins (Heb 7:26-28). He died, and now lives forever, having ascended to the right hand of the Father’s throne, entering the heavenly sanctuary with his own blood, and now he intercedes for God’s people as their perfect and eternal high priest.
Why did Jesus have to die? He died because sin is not a weakness needing reformation but a moral wrong invoking guilt and sanctions (1 Jn 3:4; Rom 2:25-27). Our salvation required God to find a way to legally forgive and justify the ungodly, reconciling the world to himself (Rom 5:10; 2 Cor 5:19-20). The cross both demonstrates and fulfils God’s perfect justice.
Jesus was both priest and sacrifice. He was our substitute, taking our place, satisfying the honour of God whom we offended by our disobedience, suffering the punishment due to our sins (1 Pet 2:24). Many people today don’t like the biblical idea of substitutionary atonement, but as Michael Horton observes in his excellent book, The Christian Faith, “Christ’s penal substitution is not the whole of Christ’s work, but without it nothing else matters.”
Jesus’ death also achieved victory over the evil powers that separate us from God – such as Satan, death, sin, and the law; or economic, political and social systems in conflict with the kingdom of God (1 Pet 3:21-22; Heb 2:14; 1 Jn 3:8).
Jesus’ death also creates one new humanity (Eph 2:11-18), overcoming the historical distinction between Jews and non-Jews, establishing harmony in place of discord, unity in place of division, identification in place of discrimination – along lines of race, geography, language, class, age, gender, taste and doctrine.
All such divisions within the church, and the potential abuse of power which such divisions enshrine, call into question our grasp of the meaning of the death of Jesus.
His death also serves as an example, demonstrating God’s pure love for sinners, moving us to faith in him and inspiring us to do good and make a positive difference in this present evil world (1 Pet 2:19-23).
- JESUS AS UNIVERSAL RULER
Jesus never ceased to be the universal ruler, but through his resurrection his claim to universal rule is vindicated and consolidated. Further, as Michael Horton notes, “Everything that Jesus performs by his speaking and priestly mediation he accomplishes for the good of his co-heirs, and when he rose and ascended in glory as King, he took up his scepter for the same purpose.”
The resurrection of Jesus is an integral part of the good news (1 Cor 15:19). It confirms the reality of life after death. It tells us where history and all creation is headed. It instils hope in the people of God. In the resurrection of Jesus, we see the power of God to overcome the effects of sin. It is a potent symbol of the new creation, the promise of eternal life, the truth of our participation in the divine nature.
Perhaps most importantly, from where we sit today, facing the real-life problems and issues of today and tomorrow, the resurrection confirms that in Jesus, we find the true revelation of God: that he is love, he is gracious, he is merciful, he overcomes all our weaknesses and inadequacies and failings.
But there is even more to the work of Jesus than his death and resurrection. After he rose, Jesus ascended into heaven, marking the end of his earthly life, as his virgin conception and birth marked its beginning. The ascension reminds us that there is more, much more, to reality than what we perceive in this material world (Jn 16:10). The ascension constitutes the full vindication of Jesus, and his exaltation, coronation and enthronement, as the hymn writer T. Kelly put it:
The highest place that heaven affords
Is his, is his by right,
The King of kings and Lord of lords,
and heaven’s eternal light.
In his resurrection, we who have been saved by his grace are “made alive in Christ”; in his ascension, we were “raised up with Christ” (Eph 2:4-7). Our Head already is in heaven, and we shall soon be there.
The ascension enabled the Holy Spirit to be poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28; Jn 16:7, 13; Ac 2:1-33 (especially vv. 32-33). It reminds us of our responsibility, in Christ’s absence, as servants of God’s eternal kingdom and stewards of God’s unfolding mission, to do the work of making disciples of Jesus (Mt 28:19-20).
To sum up:
In his heavenly exaltation, Jesus Christ exercises all three offices [of prophet, priest and king]. As prophet, he continues to declare both his law and his gospel, judging and absolving sinners through the frail ministry of human beings … [His] priesthood does not end at the cross but continues in heaven [where he intercedes for us] … Through his heavenly reign [as King of kings], with the Spirit leading the ground war, Jesus Christ loots Satan’s kingdom and sets the prisoners free.
Speaking at the Sydney Writer’s Festival on Thursday, social researcher Hugh Mackay is reported to have claimed that Jesus never told people what to believe in, only how to treat others. That statement contradicts almost everything Jesus ever said. In particular, it contradicts Jesus’ own summary of his life and teaching: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (Jn 6:29). Do you believe? Do you love him? Will you worship him passionately? Will you serve him faithfully?
Sermon 673 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 22 May 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 Jonathan R. Wilson, A Primer for Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 35-36.
 Hershael York, comment on his Facebook wall, 10 May 2016.
 Gary M. Burge, “Who is Jesus?” in Burge & Lavid Lauber (eds), Theology Questions Everyone Asks: Christian Faith in Plain Language (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), pp. 97-98.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.13.4
 John Webster, “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor,” Evangel, Spring 1985, p. 10.
 Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), pp. 512-513.
 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (London: SPCK, 2002), p. 27.
 Horton, p. 523.
 Horton, pp. 531-532.