A messianic priest-king (April 13, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Jeremiah 23:5-6; Zechariah 6:9-15: John 19:1-7 

People often say that hindsight is 20- 20. Events seem to be much clearer when we look back at the past than when we were in the midst of things and facing an uncertain future.

Jeremiah 23:5-6 — A restored house of David 

Jeremiah of Anathoth prophesied from 627 BCE until sometime after 580 BCE, a tumultuous period of history when the Southern Kingdom of Judah faced an uncertain future. He addressed some of his earliest prophetic oracles to the Northern Kingdom, which had been reduced to the descendants of a few survivors who had not been carried into captivity by the Assyrians a century earlier. Other oracles of Jeremiah were directed toward Judah, the Southern Kingdom, whose short-lived revival under King Josiah ended between 597 and 586 BCE. The conquering Babylonians led most of the population of Judah into exile. Jeremiah himself was exiled to Egypt, never to be heard from again.

In the midst of these chaotic conditions, Jeremiah prophesied that God would bring a new ruler to the throne of David. His reign would be based on righteousness (zedakah), God’s standard of justice. God told Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming when I will raise up for David a righteous branch … .” This promise of a Davidic heir is similar to Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah uses a Hebrew synonym for “branch,” but the meaning is the same. Jeremiah and Isaiah reminded the people that exile would end and God would restore them. But when? And how?

Zechariah 6:9-15 — The righteous Branch of David 

The post-exilic prophet Zechariah, whose precisely dated prophesies record visions he experienced between 520 and 518 BCE, describes the coronation of a priestly figure named Branch. “It is he that shall build the temple of the Lord … and shall sit upon his throne and rule.” (Zechariah 6:13)

Echoing the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Zechariah describes a priestly ruler who will establish righteousness and restore the worship of Jahweh by rebuilding the temple. The post-exilic leader Zerubbabel may have been seen as a fulfillment of those prophecies because his name means in Hebrew “branch of Babylon.”

Documents found at Qumran confirm that the sectarian Jewish residents of that community understood the Branch of David to be a title for the expected Messiah. Similarly, Romans 15:12 and Revelation 5:5 show that early Christians looked back at the prophecies about the Branch of David and understood them to be descriptions of the Messiah. However, they gradually shifted their understanding of the Messiah away from an earthly ruler or a restorer of the temple in Jerusalem. They saw the Messiah as the Lamb of God whose sacrificial death atones for the sins of the world, as the Gospel of John and Revelation 5 confirm.

John 19:1-7 — A redefined messianic priest-king 

The Gospel of John provides an ironic and profound account of Jesus as the messianic priest-king anticipated in the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah. The Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, and his soldiers provide the irony by presenting Jesus as a king wearing a crown of thorns and a royal purple robe. They mockingly pay homage to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” — and then they slap him in the face. But John wants his readers to know that Jesus really is the priest-king, the Messiah!

The Jewish leaders unwittingly testify to the profound truth John wants his readers to understand. Jesus really is the Son of God, as the accusing Jewish leaders said he had claimed to be. The Jewish leaders’ shouts of “Crucify him” are an ironic contrast with the earlier shouts of a different crowd who had welcomed their humble donkey-riding king into Jerusalem with palm branches. Jesus is about to become the priestly offering symbolizing the reconciliation of God with sinful humanity.

For discussion 

  1. In what sense is Jesus a king and a priest? (see Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 31)
  2. Did the shift in the meaning of the Messiah help or hinder the spread of Christianity?
  3. How should Christians interpret prophecy? Should we look for symbolic meaning in the Old Testament and then look at the New Testament and subsequent history? Or should we read the New Testament accounts of Jesus and then look back at the Old Testament to find statements