“Noël, Noël, Noël, Noël, born is the King of Israel” is a glorious refrain from a much-beloved Christmas hymn. And of course, it’s true: Jesus, as the Messiah, was born a king.
Israel had hoped for a king to liberate her from her enemies. The people had long been expecting the Messiah’s arrival, and when he appeared, they expected him to ascend as their ultimate king. When the wise men reached Palestine, their first question was, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2). Herod slaughtered the Bethlehem innocents because he feared this new King of Israel. Jesus himself, in so many words, declared himself to be the King of the Jews to Pilate (John 18:36).
But when Jesus came into the world the first time, it was not, as his disciples had earnestly hoped, to “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). He had a more pressing mission. Before his coronation, we need consecration; before his complete reign, he must complete our righteousness; before he becomes our Sovereign, he must become our sacrifice. Though Jesus truly was born our long-awaited King, he had appeared first to do the bloody work of a priest.
Prophet Then Priest Then King
This caught most people off guard. But Scripture foretold the pattern. When God delivered the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage to establish them as a holy nation, he did so in a specific progression. First came the great prophet (Moses) to proclaim the good news of liberation and call out the people. Then came the great priest (Aaron) to mediate the mercy of God by providing means for forgiving the people’s sins and cleansing them from unrighteousness. Then, quite a while later, came the great king (David).
“Though Jesus truly was born our long-awaited King, he had appeared first to do the bloody work of a priest.”
This old-covenant progression foreshadowed Jesus’s new-covenant progression. First, he revealed himself to be Israel’s great Moses-like Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15; John 7:40), “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” as he began to call out his people (Matthew 9:35). Then he revealed himself to be Israel’s great Melchizedek-like Priest (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5:9–10), as well as the sacrificial “Lamb of God” (John 1:29), providing the ultimate forgiveness for the people’s sins and cleansing them from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). And though Jesus bore marks of kingship throughout his ministry, and reigns now as king on heaven’s throne, we are still waiting for his full revelation to the world as Israel’s great David-like King (2 Samuel 7:8–16; Matthew 22:41–45).
In other words, though Jesus simultaneously occupies all three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King fully and eternally, on earth we are still living in the era of Jesus’s prophetic proclamation of the gospel (Matthew 28:19–20) and Jesus’s priestly mediation of God’s mercy toward sinners. Although everything is in subjection under his royal feet, “at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8).
Altar Before Scepter
We all, like our ancient forebears, long for our righteous King of kings to finally put an end to the evil that is the cause of such misery and grief in our lives and in our world. As we celebrate the first coming of Christ, we join Zechariah in praise as we look to the future grace of Jesus’s kingly reign:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us . . .
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1:68–71, 74–75)
“If a merciful priest doesn’t precede a righteous king, a righteous king’s reign is not good news to us.”
However, if a merciful priest doesn’t precede a righteous king, a righteous king’s reign is not good news to us. Because on our own, we are not holy and righteous, as God is. We are sinful and wicked. We all know this deep down. To stand before God with our sin unatoned for is destruction.
That’s why we all need to encounter Jesus our High Priest before we encounter Jesus our High King. We need him to mediate God’s mercy to us by making “an offering for [our] guilt” (Isaiah 53:10) before he comes to “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33:15). We need him to serve at the altar before he wields the scepter (Hebrews 1:3).
Tender Mercy of Our God
Zechariah, being a priest, knew this. Which is why I think, as he turned his words to his infant son, the forerunner of the Messiah (Luke 1:16–17; Malachi 4:5–6), he ended his declaration of praise this way:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:76–79)
He knew the Messiah’s appearance wasn’t merely about God’s people being saved from their enemies, but about God’s people being saved from being God’s enemies because of the guilt of their own sins. The Messiah was coming to mediate the tender mercy of God, as well as his holy righteousness, that he might ultimately deliver us from all our danger.
Born Is the Priest of Israel
It is right for us to long for Jesus’s reign over all rebellious reality. It is right for us to “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” which will come when Christ returns for his great earthly coronation (Romans 8:23). So, it is right for us to sing and celebrate the Advent of the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).
But it is also right to think of Christmas as a day to overflow with gratitude and celebrate with feasting the fact that Jesus came to consecrate us before his coronation. He came to make us righteous before assuming his reign. He came to become our sacrifice before becoming our Sovereign. In the tender mercy of our God, Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away [our] sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
So, I don’t think the anonymous hymn writer would be at all offended if we sometimes adapted the refrain and sang,
Noël, Noël, Noël, Noël, born is the Priest of Israel.
Having first come as our Priest, we now have every reason to look forward to when our King “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).