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Christ the Priest-King

In the brief narration of the release of Barabbas, John invites us to consider how Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth relate. Especially because Pilate specifically offers to release Jesus, the choice of Barabbas is presented as an exchange, a trade of one man (Jesus) for another (Barabbas). In this trade, the priestly work of Jesus the Messiah is sketched out as he, the innocent one, is traded for the guilty.

And yet, the context of this exchange still presents Jesus in his kingly office. After all, Pilate asks, “So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:39 ESV). No matter Pilate’s intention, John presents this exchange in terms of Christ as King. But then within this kingly context, Christ’s priestly work is sketched out such that Christ is presented, not merely as King but as Priest-King.

Now, this idea of a priest-king has roots in the Old Testament preparation for the coming of Jesus. Most notably, Melchizedek is presented as an ancient priest-king in Gen 14:18, thus joining those two offices in one person. That Melchizedek as priest-king was unusual and special is indicated by the fact that Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, thus signifying Melchizedek’s elevated honor over against Abraham. The special significance of Melchizedek is then picked up in Psalm 110, in which David prophesies that one of his sons will be a greater king than him and also “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4 ESV) according to the sworn promise of the Lord. Once more, to prove the special status of a priest-king within the thought world of God’s people, only on rare occasions and in limited circumstances could an Israelite king ever offer a sacrifice. To be sure, both David and Solomon offered sacrifices, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. When Uzziah took up the role of priest for himself, that king was severely rebuked by God with leprosy for his actions (cf. 2 Chron 26:16-21). To that, we could also add the cautionary tale of King Saul.

All that said, the idea of a priest-king among God’s people was a special concept, which makes it all the more interesting that Jesus Christ would be presented in a priestly context all while being called a king. For the rest of this reflection, I’d like to draw out the priestly significance of the exchange of Jesus for Barabbas, and then consider the implications of this trade.

As readers of John’s gospel, we know that Jesus is no ordinary man. We also know that he has, up to this point, lived a life of suffering, service, and obedience to the Father. Pilate’s remark in John 18:38 that he finds no fault, no grounds for an indictment, means far more in John’s gospel than that Pilate saw no threat in Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, it points to the faultlessness, the innocence, of this man. And Jesus’ innocence is then contrasted with Barabbas’ guilt, for John tells us that this man was a robber, or insurrectionist. Of course, the point is that for Barabbas, Pilate was able to find fault and to justly condemn him to death. As a dead man walking, the only hope he had, from the perspective of the Roman legal system, was mercy from Pilate. And yet, Pilate specifically offers Jesus, the faultless one, for release. This means that the choice for Barabbas is reminiscent of the exchange of the unblemished lamb for the guilty sinner within the sacrificial system.

And with that in mind, the priestly activity of Jesus Christ in this text is primarily focused on his substitution as the sacrifice itself. He is the unblemished sacrificial lamb who is sentenced to death, as it were, in the place of the guilty party. Because Barabbas stands as a type or representative of every guilty person, i.e. all people, the whole of the sacrificial system is summed up in this exchange of Jesus for Barabbas. Only one man could go free on the Passover, according to the custom, and so the exchange of the innocent for the guilty makes the guilty to be innocent.

And because Jesus is presented as a priest-king in this great exchange, the fulfillment of the whole purpose of the sacrificial system is anticipated. For with the priest-king, there is one who is both innocent and powerful. There is one who has the qualifications to both clear the guilty and do it cosmically because he is not merely the King of the Jews but in actual fact the King of the Cosmos. Both his priestly office, like Melchizedek, and his kingly office are eternal. And therefore he is the sure and certain hope for all who look to him by faith.

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