The following is the first installment of a series of posts on the power and authority of apostolic preaching. For many years faithful men and women have rightly recognized the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura requires that the Old and New Testament alone are God’s written word and alone hold ultimate authority in the church of the Lord Jesus for doctrine and life. Yet, what does not seem to have been done faithfully enough within even many of the denominations and congregations that hold to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture is to recognize that these latter truths are wedded to the sufficiency of Scripture for sustaining, nurturing, multiplying and perfecting God’s people. Q. & A. 89 of the Shorter Catechism states: “How is the Word made effectual to salvation? A: The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.” The different entries to this series are given in hope that congregations and denominations that claim to believe in the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura will function in a way that demonstrates that they believe that God really does grow his church first and foremost through the preaching of his word.
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament reveal an intimate and organic union between God’s word and his covenant redeemed people—Israel (OT) and the church (NT). This intimate and organic union reveals that God’s covenant redeemed people have always been created, sustained, nourished and perfected by God’s word through the power of God’s Spirit for the glory of God the Father. Integral to this work has been God ordaining the means through which he mediates his Word and Spirit to the people who are the objects of his mercy and grace. Throughout history, God has chosen particular men in his covenant community to whom he brought his word and by which he distributes his covenant blessing and curse. This is not to say that God could not or did not bring his word to particular men and women in extraordinary circumstances that were outside his ordinary chosen means of delivering it through his prophets and apostles. Instead, it draws our attention to the truth that God has worked according to a particular plan that entails an ordained authority structure and operation through which he mediates himself to his people.
Even when God brought his word in extraordinary circumstances, such as during the times of the Judges, it was designed to bring his people back to the ordinary means of grace by which God had commanded them to operate. We see God’s ordained authority structure in seed form in Noah and Abraham (Gen. 18:17-19), and coming to its fullest fruition in the old covenant era through Moses culminating in King David. We see this same authority structure fulfilled in the new covenant era through Jesus creating and establishing the apostles, and they in turn, through their preaching of God’s word empowered by the Holy Spirit, established and nourished the church. God not only created his redeemed covenant community, but also nourished and multiplied them. Just as God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, God, through the Last Adam, who is the Word made flesh—Jesus, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity—is fruitful, multiplies, fills the earth and subdues it, as he creates, sustains, nourishes and perfects his covenant people.
This government or shepherding of God’s redeemed covenant people results in the administration of God’s word in their corporate life (Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy). In the Old Testament era God’s word was administered through the offices of the prophet, priest and king. These offices find their root and fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ. Through the offices of prophet, priest and king, God gave himself to his people, because these three offices were fundamentally about God’s Word being administered to and received by God’s covenant community redeemed from sin. As an organic part of his work of redemption, Jesus established the apostles—the men he gave the authoritative interpretation of his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Integral to this is the Spirit of Truth, sent by Jesus and the Father, bearing witness about and glorifying Jesus to the disciples that Jesus had chosen (John 14:15-27; 15:26-27; 16:13-15; Acts 1:1-2). It is the apostolic testimony preserved and given through the New Testament Scriptures by which people have both God the Father and Son mediated to them (2John 9-10). In other words, Jesus fulfilled all that was begun in the Old Covenant era that was integral to God rescuing creation and his people from sin. Essential to this New Covenant administration of God’s covenant is the preaching of the apostolic testimony regarding Jesus.
The shepherding or governing authority and thereby power for the creation, sustaining and perfecting of the church is rooted in the apostles’ proclamation regarding Jesus, as given in and through the New Testament. Through the Holy Spirit, the power and authority of Jesus is administrated through the proclamation of the Old and New Testament by those gifted by the Holy Spirit, and who have been confirmed by and to the church through that same Spirit. In all this we see, fundamentally, what the Protestant Reformation was all about—the recovery of these truths in all their glorious implications. In what follows I hope to more specifically trace out what I have just affirmed and help us see the indispensable authority and power of apostolic preaching for the creation, sustaining, growth, and perfection of the church.
The Word of the Creator: Spoken, Written, Made Flesh
The Bible, of course, begins with God creating by his Word and Spirit. God spoke his word and it was accompanied by his Spirit and life came. God is life. He alone has life within himself, and there is no life apart from his sovereign decision to create and sustain it. God is Lord over life and death, and to know God is eternal life (John 17:3). God’s response to sin is to bring his word for judgment and rescue, or in covenant terms, curse and blessing. God spoke to Adam and Eve, as well as the serpent. Repeatedly, throughout the Old Testament, we read of God speaking, and of course, we only know this because God empowered particular men, beginning with Moses, to write his word. So there is an intimate and intricate union between the spoken and written word of God and judgment against and rescue from sin. God’s final and fullest manifestation of his word was that he became flesh, as demonstrated by the Lord Jesus Christ.
God is called The Word at the beginning of John’s gospel, and John begins his account of the gospel in a way that is unmistakably meant to alert us to Genesis: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” From beginning to end the Bible teaches us to identify God with his word. Among other texts, Matthew 19:5 and Genesis 2:24; Romans 9:17 and Exodus 9:13-16; along with Galatians 3:8 and Genesis 12:3 demonstrate that the terms Scripture and God are used interchangeably. God is his word, and his word spoken, written and made flesh is God to us and for his people; God accomplishes all that he accomplishes by his word, and because there is never disunity between God’s word and Spirit, we must always think of God’s Spirit as working by and with God’s word; God’s word always brings us his Spirit for blessing or curse. To emphasize God’s word is to emphasize his Spirit, whether we know it or not, because God’s word and Spirit always remain united. While some may erroneously isolate God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit from each other in their thinking and practice, in reality, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are never disconnected from each other or dissolved into each other; we can distinguish between them, yet they are forever united as one.
Offices and Functions of Prophet, Priest and King
The offices of prophet, priest and king were revealed through Moses, the great prophet and priest of God in the Old Covenant era. While Moses did not hold the office of a king, he demonstrated its function by leading God’s Old Covenant people, Israel, out of Egypt and to victory over the Egyptians. The offices of prophet, priest and king were designed to govern the worship and life of God’s Old Covenant people. These offices and their functions existed in an organic relationship to each other, as can be seen, among other places, in Deuteronomy 17 and 18. By affirming that Moses wrote of him, Jesus identified himself as the fulfillment of the prophetic, priestly and kingly offices.
What the Old Testament prophets accomplished was not primarily the foretelling of the future, but rather the forth-telling or proclamation of God’s word. This is confirmed by the test for a prophet in Deuteronomy 18:22. Our English translations have difficulty doing justice to the Hebrew in Deuteronomy 18:22. The text is not merely saying that if a prediction does not come true, then the one making the prediction is not a prophet. Instead, it affirms that if what the prophet spoke is not (the literal rendering), that is, is not true, or not in accordance with what God had already spoken, then that person was not a prophet. There was a predictive element within what the Old Testament prophets proclaimed, but this was not its primary function. Instead, their primary role was to first, set forth God’s covenant, and then second, to prosecute against God’s people the covenant law case God had against them by virtue of the covenant relationship and law God had established with them through Moses. This culminates in Moses’ lifetime in the speeches of Deuteronomy 28 and 29 in which the blessing and curse of God’s covenant are set before God’s covenant people through Moses.
Jesus and the Apostles Fulfilling Prophet, Priest and King
Thus, when Jesus said that Moses wrote of him (John 5:39-47), he identified himself as the fulfillment of the offices of prophet, priest and king. Among other texts, the book of Hebrews makes these points clear. Its opening statement emphasizes and illumines the union and fulfillment of the prophetic, kingly and priestly offices and functions of the Old Testament. In Jesus accomplishing and applying these works he affirmed that he is not only the one in whom God’s people would experience all the blessings of God’s covenant, but also the one who would deliver God’s covenant curse. Jesus reinforced this point when he explained why he spoke in parables and quoted Isaiah 6:9-10. To Jesus’ disciples the mysteries of the kingdom had been granted but not to some of the others to whom Jesus spoke (Mt. 13:10-16). In these emphases we need to see, among other things, that God not only blesses and curses through His Word, written, spoken and made flesh, but also that God is sovereign regarding who receives the curse and blessing. Still further, Peter in Acts 3:22-26 proclaims that Jesus is the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18:15-22. Now, what we might too easily miss is this: because Jesus is the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18:15-22, Peter and the other apostles are also the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18:15-22, because it was Jesus who empowered and ordained Peter and the apostles to proclaim the authoritative interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension (John 14-16; Acts 1:1-8).
In the next post we will look more closely at the New Testament and how these matters are expressed in the ministry of the apostles.
1 While the point of this brief essay is to highlight the power and authority of the apostolic testimony that is God’s word to his people for their life, it is God’s word that was always confirmed to and through the senses of God’s servants and the whole covenant community. Thus, in Genesis 15 where we have the first explicit mentioning that “the word of the Lord came” we also have God confirming his word to Abram’s senses through his looking at the stars, and then through the covenant ratification ceremony. Among other things it highlights the unbreakable union between God’s word and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
2 Perhaps the most concise and accurate descriptions of the functions of each office is given in the Westminster Confession of Faith in its Shorter Catechism. Q. #24: How does Christ execute the office of a prophet? A: Christ executes the office of a prophet, in revealing to us by his Word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation. Q. #25: How does Christ execute the office of a priest? A: Christ executes the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us. Q. #26: How does Christ execute the office of a king? Christ executes the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies. The Larger Catechism, of course, expands on these.
3 Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy The New International Commentary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1976), 263. If we think that the predictive element alone was the test of a prophet it sets up a rather difficult scenario. What if the prophet predicts something to take place many years into the future? The people would obviously have to wait until that date to discover whether the alleged prophet was indeed a prophet. The test of speaking what was consistent with what God had already spoken is highlighted not only in that the proper translation of the present tense verb results in “is not” in 18:22, but also in the words of 18:20, “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.” The emphasis, in other words, was whether the alleged prophet was calling God’s covenant people to think and live to honor Yahweh. What honored God was all he had previously spoken through Moses. This is why this portion of Scripture begins with Moses stating what he does in 18:15, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you. See, too 18:18. So, Deuteronomy 18:22 must be understood in the context of 18:20 and the emphasis on what God had already revealed through Moses.