By John F. Walvoord
The Ministry of Christ in His Life on Earth
The four Gospels provide our principal source of information concerning Christ in His life on earth. Though the narratives are selective, in keeping with the principle governing each Gospel, and though only a fraction of the incidents which might be of interest are related, the picture provided in the inspired Scripture is intriguing to all classes of scholars and is replete with theological significance.
Though the historical character of the Gospels makes them easy to understand, their theological interpretation is by no means uncomplicated. Few sections of Scripture require more careful analysis and precise interpretation. The reason does not lie in the complicated narrative, but rather in the fact that the incidents recorded are more than just history. They constitute a revelation of God and His purposes.
The Major Spheres of the Earthly Life of Christ
One of the reasons why the Gospels are difficult to interpret is that Christ lived in three major spheres and His teaching as well as His life are related to them. The right understanding of this fact is essential not only to a correct interpretation of the Gospels but gives the key to the entire New Testament.
The sphere of Jewish law. The law which was inaugurated for Israel through Moses was still in effect throughout the lifetime of Christ and in one sense is not terminated until His death (Gal 3:23-25; 4:5 ). In much of His teaching, Christ affirmed the Mosaic law and declared it must be fulfilled (Matt 5:7-19). As related to the life of Christ, it can be said that Christ lived under the law, that His teaching constituted a major interpretation of it, and that He kept it perfectly (2 Cor 5:21). Christ on numerous occasions contradicted the customary teaching of the law. He insisted, moreover, on its practical application to the spiritual issues of His day in contrast with the common evasion of the law by the scribes. As the Son of God, He also was free to interpret authoritatively the law and in some cases contrasted His own teaching with that of Moses.
Christ insisted that keeping the letter of the Mosaic law was not sufficient. The Mosaic law could be properly fulfilled only by those who attained its highest form of interpretation, centering in the love of God and love of one’s neighbor. In some cases, Christ pointed out that the Mosaic law represented divine condescension in that God accommodated Himself to the weakness of the people, as in the case of the teaching on divorce. Frequently, Christ appealed to the higher law of God of which the Mosaic law was a particular expression.
The sphere of the kingdom. Much of the teaching of Christ is directly related to the doctrine of the kingdom. The Gospels connect this line of truth specifically to the Old Testament revelation of the kingdom to be established on earth by the power of the Messiah. The Gospel of Matthew, in its opening portion, especially related Christ to David as fulfilling the Davidic covenant. The Gospel of Luke records the angelic messenger who promised Mary that her Son would reign on the throne of David and rule over the house of Israel forever.
In the opening section of Matthew the credentials of the King are presented and the predicted signs are recorded as fulfilled. In keeping with His relation to the kingdom, Christ revealed the spiritual principles which govern this kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount, giving present application of these principles to the particular situation, as well as speaking prophetically of the spiritual qualities which are to enter into His millennial kingdom. In the Olivet Discourse, specific prophecy is given concerning the great tribulation which will introduce His second coming and the establishment of His throne on the earth.
Though the New Testament doctrine of the kingdom necessarily is based on the Old, the tendency of scholars to limit the teaching of Christ to one phase of the kingdom or another is open to question. An examination of what Christ had to say about the kingdom should make plain that in some instances He spoke concerning the general government and authority of God over the universe. In other cases He dealt with the reign of God in the heart, or a spiritual kingdom. In other cases, He spoke specifically of the kingdom promise to David. It is, therefore, an error to limit His teaching to making all His kingdom messages apply to the millennial period alone. On the other hand, it is equally erroneous to limit His teaching to a spiritual kingdom to be fulfilled in part before His second advent.
The kingdom teachings are found principally in the Old Testament, and the kingdom partakes to some extent of the legal character of this period. As presented in the teachings of Christ, however, the millennial kingdom is a distinct sphere of rule both in its content and in its application, and is to be contrasted with the present age of the church or the past dispensation of law.
The sphere of the church. In addition to the teachings of Christ relating to the Mosaic law and the kingdom, prophecy is given of the church. The first mention of this is found in Matthew 16:18, following the rejection of Christ as King and the opposition to His message on the spiritual principles of the kingdom. Earlier, in Matthew 13, the entire interadvent age is revealed under the seven mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. Chronologically the church coincides with much of the development of this period revealed in Matthew 13.
The chief revelation concerning the church, however, is found in the Gospel of John in the Upper Room Discourse. Here, apparently for the first time, the essential principles are revealed which pertain to the purpose of God in the present interadvent age. The basic spiritual principles are given in John 13. In chapter 14 the fact that Christ will be in the Father’s house during the present age and will send the Spirit to dwell in the believer is unfolded. The vine and the branches in chapter 15 speak of the organic union of the believer with Christ, the new intimacy of being friends of Christ, and the fact that believers are chosen and ordained to bring forth fruit. The opposition and persecution which will characterize the present age is revealed also in chapter 15 , in contrast with the protection of the saints in the millennial kingdom. A major doctrine given in John 16 is the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to the world and the believer. The great purposes of God as they will be fulfilled in the church are also implicit in the intercession of Christ recorded in chapter 17 . The fact that the believer will be perfectly united to God and that he will be in Christ and Christ will be in him forms the center of the revelation.
A study of the four Gospels, therefore, will demonstrate three major spheres of revelation. It is a hasty generalization, however, to characterize the Gospels as law or that they pertain to the church or kingdom. It is rather that Christ taught in all these spheres, and each utterance must be understood in its context and content.
Christ as Prophet
Without question, Christ is the greatest of the prophets. His teachings contained in the four Gospels demonstrate a great variety of subjects, a broader scope of prophecy, and a more comprehensive revelation than is found in any of the recorded prophets of Scripture. In almost every aspect of revelation, Christ made a distinct contribution.
Unlike all other prophets, Christ revealed God not only in His spoken ministry but in His life and person. As the Logos of John, Christ was eternally the source of knowledge, truth, wisdom, and light. When He became incarnate, He became a declaration in human flesh of what God is (John 1:4-18). In His life, death, and resurrection, Christ was a revelation of God far beyond that of any preceding prophet. Even after His resurrection Christ continued to exercise His prophetic office, teaching His disciples the things they needed to know to adjust themselves to the new age into which they were going. After His ascension, the Holy Spirit was sent to continue the prophetic work, however, revealing to the saints the truth that Christ would have them know (John 16:12-15).
The Office of Priest
Just as Christ, fulfilled to the utmost the office of prophet so also He qualifies as the High Priest and is the embodiment of all that is anticipated in the Old Testament priesthood. As a priest, He fulfilled the primary definition of what constitutes a priest, “a man duly appointed to act for other men in things pertaining to God.”1 Not only in His person but also in His work, Christ fulfilled the ministry of a priest, offering gifts, sacrifices, and intercession. He acted as a true Mediator between God and man. According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ fulfilled the five necessary requirements of the priesthood: (1) He was qualified for the office (Heb 1:3; 3:1-6 ); (2) He was appointed of God (Heb 5:1-10); (3) His priesthood was of a higher order than that of Aaron’s, as Christ’s priesthood superseded Aaron’s as Aaron’s had superseded the patriarchal system (Heb 5:6, 10; 7:1—8:6 ); (4) all functions of the priesthood were performed by Christ (Heb 7:23-28; 9:11-28 ; 10:5-18 ); (5) His priesthood is eternal, indicating His superiority and finality (Heb 7:25). A detailed discussion of His priesthood is planned for a later section.
The Office of King
One of the fundamental purposes of the incarnation was the fulfillment of the earthly purpose of God in the Davidic covenant. The Old Testament had predicted the coming of a King who would fulfill the promise of God to David (2 Sam 7:16; Pss 2 ; 45 ; 72 ; 110 ; Isa 9:6-7; Dan 7:13-14; Mic 5:2; Zech 9:8). When Christ came, He fulfilled the requirements of the prophesied King, though the full revelation of His work as King was reserved for His second coming.
The record in the New Testament is both historical and prophetic (Luke 1:31-33; John 1:49; 18:37 ; 19:12 ; 1 Cor 15:25; 1 Tim 6:15; Rev 1:5; 17:14 ; 19:16 ). The rejection of Christ as king by Israel (John 19:15) resulted in the postponement of the millennial kingdom, but it did not alter the certainty of complete fulfillment of His work as King, nor the fact that in His person He is the King of Israel.
Taken together, the three offices of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King are the key to the purpose of the incarnation. His prophetic office was concerned with the revelation of the truth of God; the priestly office was related to His work as Savior and Mediator; His kingly office had in view His right to reign over Israel and over the entire earth. In Christ the supreme dignity of these offices is reached.
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