Opening the Word: Christ, the perfect priest-king

“Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” 

Those dramatic words are found in the “Martyrdom of St. Polycarp,” which describes the execution of the bishop of Smyrna in the second century. Polycarp, taken into the stadium, was given a final chance to renounce Christ. “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent … ,” said the proconsul. “Swear, and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ.” The text states that the bound bishop, having been tied to a stake, was not touched or harmed by fire, so he was finally stabbed. 

Polycarp, according to St. Irenaeus and others, was acquainted with the Apostle John; in fact, he apparently studied under St. John’s guidance and was eventually appointed and consecrated as a bishop by “apostles in Asia.” His words of fidelity and love are a vivid expression of the witness described so powerfully in the Book of Revelation, written by the “servant John,” exiled on the island of Patmos, in order to “give witness to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rv 1:2). 

A central part of that witness is the declaration of the kingship of Jesus Christ. Today’s reading from the opening chapter of Revelation presents this in the form of a greeting and doxology, or blessing, meant for the seven churches in Asia Minor (Rv 2-3). Jesus is introduced with three titles: faithful witness, firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth. The first refers to Jesus as both a witness through his saving death and through his faithful fulfillment of the Law. 

The second and third are a reference to Psalm 89: “I myself make him firstborn, Most High over the kings of the earth,” a passage also quoted by St. Paul: “He is the beginning, the first born from the dead … ” (Col 1:15-20). Having conquered death by death, Jesus is ruler of all earthly kings; as he told the disciples shortly before his Ascension, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations … ” (Mt 28:18-19). The work of the king of kings is liberation from sin, which has been won through the Cross, is proclaimed by the Church, and is brought to completion in the kingdom. “While helping the world and receiving many benefits from it,” wrote the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, “the Church has a single intention: that God’s kingdom may come, and that the salvation of the whole human race may come to pass” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 45). 

The doxology in the Apocalypse also emphasizes the priestly work of Christ, who shed his blood so mankind might be freed from sin, forming “a kingdom, priests for his God and Father.” There is a clear reference to both the Passover and the covenantal language at Mount Sinai: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation” (Ex 19:6; see 1 Pt 2:9). Christ, the perfect priest-king, liberates and shapes and guides his pilgrim people, for the glory of his Father. 

Pope Pius XI, in declaring the feast of Christ the King in 1925, said the lordship of Christ consists “in a threefold power”: the power to make and give laws, the power to judge, and the power to govern and rule. His kingship is complete and whole, encompassing all things. God is the “Alpha and the Omega,” the first and the last, the beginning and end (see Rv 22:13). We can serve him or we can blaspheme him.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of