The Baptist, Priest and Prophet


In Church talk, we hear the words “maintenance” and “mission,” and we too often think that “maintenance” is a bad word, while “mission” is a good word.

We’re supposed to be busy with mission and outreach: changing the world, feeding the hungry and evangelizing the lost. Maintenance seems dull in comparison. Maintenance seems mundane, routine and boring, while mission is exciting, radical and real.

“Maintenance” and “mission” are also symbolized by the priests and the prophets — two aspects of ministry in the Old Testament. The priests were all members of the same tribe (Levi).

For the Jews, the priesthood is an inherited role: Your father was a priest, so you are a priest. The priest’s job was to maintain the Temple, offer the sacrifices and perform the ritual duties of the Jewish religion. It was long term. It was routine. It required no special calling.

The prophets, on the other hand, were the ones specially called by God. They had fire in their bellies and thunder in their words. They lived radical lives of devotion to God, inveighing against the wicked rulers, calling down judgment on the unrighteous, having dreams and visions and direct contact with the Almighty.

The prophets were on a mission from God. The priests? They were the maintenance men.

In fact, both priests and prophets are important, and it is, therefore, no mistake that the herald of the Lord’s coming is both priestly and prophetic.

John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was doing his priestly round of offering the incense sacrifice when the angel of the Lord appeared to him. Because Zechariah was a priest, his son John was also, technically, a priest. While it seems that the priest’s role was dull and routine, in fact, the observance of the sacrificial system was an important part of the Jewish anticipation of the Messiah.

The sacrificial lambs were constant reminders of the one who would be the Lamb of God. The priesthood was a sign of the one who would come and be the great High Priest. The worship of the Temple was a regular reminder of the one who would come and make his dwelling place among men.

That John the Baptist was a priest gives special emphasis to his words, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Was this phrase part of the priestly liturgy? Did the priest, when sacrificing the Passover lamb, say those same words?

When John the Baptist announces Jesus as the Lamb of God, are we hearing John the Baptist the priest speaking? When the priest says the same words at Mass as he holds up the chalice and host, we are, therefore, hearing the words of John the Baptist the priest echoing down to our own day in our own worship.

If John was a priest, he was also a prophet. He combined maintenance and mission, the priestly and the prophetic roles. He was the new Elijah — the voice of one crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.

As both priest and prophet, John the Baptist prepares the way in more ways than simply preaching the Gospel of repentance. John the Baptist, priest and prophet, is the forerunner of the one who will be the High Priest and the ultimate prophet of God: Christ. As such, John becomes, in his own person and ministry, a summary of the entire Old Testament.

In him, the old priesthood finds its final expression. In him, the old prophetic order reaches its completion. In him, the Old Testament comes to a close. The chapter is ended. The covenant is complete. That is why John says about Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

John’s being both priest and prophet is a reminder to us that we watch and wait for the coming of the Lord in both the priestly and prophetic life. We look for the Lord in both maintenance and mission — Christ comes to us in both the routine observances of our religion and in the exciting experiences of the spiritual life.

The one who watches for Christ does not despise the ordinary, routine aspects of life, nor does he sneer at the charismatic and thrilling religious experiences. The routine “priestly” observances build stability and perseverance. The exciting “prophetic” experiences add fire and zeal to the spiritual life. Watching and waiting require both perseverance and an attention to duty and routine, while at the same time we are burning with zeal, anticipation and longing.

John the Baptist’s being both priest and prophet reminds us that both routine duty and fiery zeal are needed if we are to find the Lord.

The spiritual life is like a lantern. The solid metal and glass structure with the wick and oil is empty, dark and dull without the flame, but the flame could not burn and give light without the wick, the oil and the lantern to support it.

So as we look for the coming of the Lord, we maintain the regular structures and patterns of our religion, all the time praying to be filled with that fiery, prophetic spirit that welcomes the one who is the eternal Priest, Prophet and King.

Father Dwight Longenecker

is the author of The Romance of Religion.

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