Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 12 - Why He is Called Christ and Why I Am Called a Christian
Question 31: Why is he called Christ, that is, Anointed?
Answer 31: Because he has been ordained by God the Father,
and anointed with the Holy Spirit, to be
our chief Prophet and Teacher,
who has fully revealed to us
the secret counsel and will of God
concerning our redemption;
our only High Priest,
who by the one sacrifice of his body
has redeemed us,
and who continually intercedes for us
before the Father;
and our eternal King,
who governs us by his Word and Spirit,
and who defends and preserves us
in the redemption obtained for us.
A name does not immediately imply a title.
With “Prince William of Orange”, William is his name and “Prince of Orange” is his title. The fairly common name William is accompanied by a very special title. However, not everyone who is called William is also a prince.
We have a similar case with the name Jesus and his title Christ. Jesus was — just like Peter or James — a name that any Jew could bear. Even his greatest enemies had no objection to his being called Jesus. But when he declared before the Jewish council that he was the Christ, his condemnation was readily agreed upon.1 What did this title imply?
Messiah, Christ, Anointed
That is the same name three times, but in three languages: Hebrew (OT), Greek (NT), and English. But even the English word “Anointed” does not make us much wiser. For what are anointed ones? We do not come across them anywhere, except in the Bible and then especially in the OT. Precious anointing oil was poured over their heads. By this act the sovereign God appointed someone to enter into his service. No one could get away from this. There was no opportunity to say, “No thank you”.
The anointing oil was the symbol of the Holy Spirit. He appointed the anointed one and immediately promised to help him in his new task. That is what is so encouraging: when God engages someone, he immediately promises that he will help. He who appoints also gives competency.
The anointed one became a prophet, a priest or a king.2
No one was ever anointed to be a farmer or a shepherd. Saul had been a farmer and David herded sheep, but they were not anointed until they became kings. So are farmers and shepherds not in the service of God? Why was a farmer not anointed while a king was? There was a clear reason for this: a farmer, a shepherd or a carpenter could provide good products even if they refused to serve God. An Israelite woman did not need to know if the wheat for her bread came from a believing farmer. The quality of it did not change. It remained a gift from God. But of a prophet, every Israelite had to know before anything else whether he was speaking on behalf of God. Otherwise his words — whether beautiful or not — were unreliable. They also had to know this about the priest. He was the contact person with God, but everyone had to be absolutely sure that God himself had called the priest for that purpose. The same applied to the king. Through his anointing he was directly under God. Thus the people were assured that his task came from God.
An anointed one had not applied for his assignment, but had been appointed by God. People therefore had to keep their hands off his anointed ones. That could go far. King Saul later took no notice of the LORD. What he did was enough to make one cry. David was already anointed as his successor. But he did not even think about killing Saul. To him, Saul remained the anointed one of the LORD.3
It even happened once that God called the pagan king Cyrus his anointed one or messiah.4
Whether the man realized it was not the point, but the proud ruler of the world was no more than the pliers with which God cut the barbed wire behind which his people were imprisoned. With every anointed person one had to do with God himself. So far we have been talking about the OT. There were many anointed ones at that time: kings, priests, prophets. But not one of them had definitively brought salvation and many had even failed miserably in their task. In the NT, of the many that were anointed, no more than one remained. There is only one Christ. As a matter of fact, already in the OT all attention was increasingly focused on that One: the Messiah. He had to take over the tasks of all the prophets, priests and kings! He had to make up for and finish what they had left behind. After him no second person came on the scene. He had no backup or replacement. He is not only the First, but irrevocably also the Last who is able to save us! But then to us it must be a foregone conclusion that God is standing behind him. That he truly is the Anointed One. In terms of what our faith expects, everything stands or falls with this reality. But did the majority of his own people not reject him until today? Then who will prove to us that Jesus is the Christ? The NT provides that proof. It leaves no room for any doubt: Jesus is the promised Messiah. But immediately we encounter a question.
Was Jesus Really Anointed?
Jesus was not anointed in the manner of David or Elisha. Oil did not enter into the picture. Yet that was no loss because in fact he was appointed from heaven in a much more direct way than anyone else. It happened following his baptism in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit then descended like a dove. A voice from heaven designated him as God’s beloved Son. At the time he was about thirty years old.5 Then we should not pretend that Jesus could only be called the Anointed One from the age of thirty and not before that time. When he was twelve he had already declared that he had to be busy with the things of his Father.6 Moreover, he suffered for us all the time of his life on earth.7 And he did suffer all that time as the Christ. Even before he was 30 years old, he must have been. Yes, even before his birth, during the OT.8
But that he was the Christ indeed was publicly confirmed when he was anointed with the Spirit after his baptism. That this happened was of great significance, both to him and to us. He was about to begin his work publicly and officially. He received the green light from heaven, as it were. The descent of the Spirit and the voice of his Father gave him the ultimate assurance to continue on the path that had been chosen. But also for John the Baptist — and through him for us — this event became the irrefutable proof that God appointed Jesus.9
Christ On Earth
All people could know that Jesus was appointed by God. He said it outright, right at the beginning. It was during an official service in the synagogue at Nazareth. He read the words from the scroll of Isaiah: “the Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me”.10
When he had returned the scroll and all eyes were upon him as he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” It should have been the most joyful synagogue service until then... Yet it ended in an attempt to kill him.
Jesus knew himself to be Prophet. Indirectly, he was already calling himself as such during that service in the synagogue when he said that “no prophet is acceptable (or: “welcomed”) in his hometown”.11 He was also keenly aware that he was the supreme Prophet. When he heard from his disciples that the people mistook him for one of the prophets (Elijah, Jeremiah), he did not accept it because he asked, “But you, who do you say that I am?”12
In which way did he surpass all the other prophets? In the fact that never before had a prophet known so surely and so completely what God wants with us. He was God’s confidant and came straight from him.13 Yet he did not come with exciting reports about heaven. Considering what he knew, he revealed little about that. He came with other news. Great news — because he revealed the hidden counsel and will of God concerning our salvation.
“Counsel” or “will” means God’s plan or decision. Christ thus revealed what God had decided about us and what he wants with us: our salvation. That became a revelation indeed! He surpassed all other prophets in revealing that plan of salvation completely. People never got to know God as well as they did through him. No one has shown God’s love for the world as clearly and convincingly as he has done.14
Moreover, we can be absolutely sure that it is as he has revealed it. This is how God really is! This is what his plan of salvation really looks like! For we do not have it second-hand, but from God’s own confidant. And he did not merely reveal his personal judgment of God, but he could say, “My teaching is not mine, but from him who sent me”.15 And he spoke of the commandment his Father had given him to speak thus and not otherwise.16
All of this together gives us the greatest assurance that God is for us as Jesus makes him known.
On earth he was also our High Priest. Not the umpteenth one, but the only one. That too was established immediately. John the Baptist already called him once and again the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.17 The last high priest was absolutely unique. No other one had managed to take away even one sin, let alone that of the world. The fact that he is called the Lamb of God underlines once again that God himself had appointed him and accepted his sacrifice. For us this contains the joyful certainty that he has undoubtedly reconciled us with God.
On earth he was already our King. Not simply another in a series of them, but the eternal one. At a very early stage Nathanael confessed: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”18
Jesus’ first preaching had as its subject the coming of the kingdom of heaven.19
So we see that Jesus was Prophet, Priest and King during his stay on earth. The question that now arises is whether he was perhaps sometimes the one and at other times the other.
Three Separate Offices?
A person can be a gym teacher, or a doctor and at the same time be an elder in the church. In the gym or in the consulting room, he is not acting as an elder. And conversely, during the home visit he is neither a teacher or coach, nor a physician. He is either one or the other. This is not true in respect to the three offices of Jesus. They cannot be separated for a moment. He was and is at all times both the one and the other.
Almost naturally we see in him the Priest one time, for example when he sacrificed himself on the cross, and the other time we see him as Prophet, especially when he revealed God’s will to his disciples for three years, and we recognize in him the King when evil spirits were evicted at his command. In reality, however, he was never one without being the other. When he stood before Pilate as a powerless Lamb, he was still King.20 When he died as Priest, he cast down Satan from the throne as a prince “by his death”.21 And when he was dying, he spoke as Prophet that everything had been accomplished.22
His three offices are to be distinguished, yet at no time can they be separated. The mention of three offices is not to make things needlessly complicated, but to give us some insight in how much had to happen in order to save us. To do so he had to accomplish not one, but three superhuman tasks. He did it for us. And so he is still at it! As Prophet, Priest and King.
Since the time he was on earth, Christ’s position has changed unimaginably. He was given the highest place of honour in heaven and all power in heaven and on earth.
But it did not become an honourable retirement. He continued to perform his threefold task to this day. For people on earth!
He remained our Prophet. We experience him as such in every worship service. For it is he who proclaims the will of God concerning our salvation. He is also the driving force behind mission and evangelism.23
He also remained our King. With the power he has on earth he protects us. In the midst of all the violence he keeps us in the salvation he acquired for his people.24
Also as Priest he is still at work for us. He does not offer sacrifices in heaven. That has been accomplished. But a priest was not finished when he had made all the sacrifices. That was only the start for what would follow. For then the way was opened to plead for the people with God and to pray for his blessing. So does Christ. At one time he said to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith would not fail”.25 He is doing that also now in heaven — for us. It is our salvation.26 Therein lies the secret and the assurance that we will not fail.
In heaven he is not only our King, but also our Prophet and Priest. That is why the images spontaneously overlap there as well: he stands there as the Lamb who was slaughtered, but at the same time he is the royal Lion who rules the world.27 Everyone in heaven is enthusiastic about the work he is still performing there every day as the Christ. All the angels and departed believers praise him for it. So it is a foregone conclusion that he is working unceasingly for our salvation. Even during the darkest days of our lives.
Question 32: Why are you called a Christian?
Answer 32: Because I am a member of Christ by faith
and thus share in his anointing,
so that I may
as prophet confess his name,
as priest present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him,
and as king fight with a free and good conscience
against sin and the devil in this life,
over all creatures.
The Twelve Articles remain silent about the name “Christian”. Strictly speaking, therefore, the Catechism is out of order with this question. But rightly the authors saw here a good opportunity to make clear how we notice that we on earth have a connection with Christ in that distant heaven.
What Are Christians?
A power plant may be located far outside the city. Nevertheless, it dominates the life of the city located on a mountain. The thousands of twinkling lights that provide a magnificent panorama at night are the visible result of that power plant far away. The indispensability of the energy supply is obvious when there is a power outage: everywhere it gets dark, the radio goes silent, the heating stops working, computers refuse to work, and elevators get stuck. When the power is restored, it is as if the city comes to life again.
Where do Christians get their strength and energy? From Christ. He may be far away in heaven, yet they are still closely connected with him. In an even stronger sense than the city with its power plant. Christians are named after Christ28 and are even called his body.29
This has implications. The Spirit and the divine energy that descended on Christ flow into every part of his body — and that is us! The divine energy of the Spirit flows into our lives and causes us to shine like lights in the darkness. We cannot help but become such a city on a mountain that can be seen from far away.30
That is how closely we on earth are connected to Christ in heaven by faith. We are involved in his anointing and receive part of it. As a result, we too become prophet, priest and king. What are the implications of this? What is therefore expected of us?
What Christians Do
Christians do not have separate jobs. Few professions are absolutely unacceptable to them. Tax collectors and soldiers asked John the Baptist after their conversion what was expected of them. He did not advise them to resign. They did, however, need to show in their profession that they were Christians.31
How does that work? I am a prophet. That means that I will stand up and say that I belong to Christ — also at the job. When the need arises, I mention or confess his name. As a priest the things I do and don’t do must be permeated with gratitude. In that way I offer myself as a living sacrifice of thanksgiving. I am also king. A throne is as yet nowhere to be seen. That is for later. Now we have to fight: against sin and against the devil.
We are anything but perfect Christians. Rather, we are failing prophets, priests and kings. Our connection with Christ is often poor because of our small faith. As a result, the lights often do not shine very brightly and sometimes they fail completely. Fortunately, Christ remains faithful to us.
One day we will, as perfect prophets, confess his name without hesitation with mouth and heart. And by offering our lives as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, we may continue forever. For though there will no longer be a temple on the new earth, yet all believers will be priests there.32
And though we presently suffer our defeats in the struggle against sin, we have the prospect of reigning with Christ over all creatures.33 Faith expects that Christ lives up to his threefold title.