To profess that Jesus is Lord is to make no empty claim. It is the singular most important confession that a person can make about who Jesus is and about their relationship to Jesus. To identify Jesus as Lord is to state that God the Father has appointed the crucified and risen man, Jesus of Nazareth, as the master and commander of the cosmos. To acknowledge that Jesus is Lord with one’s lips, by surrendering one’s heart, and by bowing (metaphorically or literally) one’s knees, means that one recognizes that Jesus is the ultimate authority over all things. The sun at the center of the theological universe of the New Testament is this: Jesus reigns.
Truth be told, the Greek word Kyrios for “Lord” is not a technical title for a deity, but simply denotes a person who has authority over someone or something. In the ancient world slaves referred to their masters as Kyrios (Greek) or Dominus (Latin). In the Gospels, when Jesus is addressed as “Lord,” it often means no more than “Sir” or “Master.”1 However, there are other occasions when designation of Jesus as “Lord” is clearly intended to convey Jesus’ divine identity. The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus drove the early church to refer to Jesus as “Lord” in ways identical to how the Old Testament referred to God as YHWH. We need to remember that the Hebrew names for God, the tetragrammaton YHWH and the more general Adonai, were usually translated in the Septuagint (i.e. the Greek version of the Old Testament) with Kyrios for “Lord.” So when Paul says that Jesus is the “one Lord” through whom all things come (1 Cor 8:6 = Deut 6:4) and “everyone tongue will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11 = Isa 45:23) he was using YHWH-language to describe Jesus as the “Lord.” The purpose of this blend of scriptural allusion and devotion to Jesus is to underscore the unequaled status given to Jesus by God the Father.
In several other instances the lordship of Jesus constitutes the rubric for the New Testament witness to Jesus. For example, Psalm 110 opens with, “The Lord said to my lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” This was the favorite text for Christian interpreters and preachers. Flip through any New Testament concordance and you’ll find citations, allusions, and echoes of Ps 110 literally and literarily everywhere. A christological reading of Ps 110 gave strong impetus to the view that Jesus was the singular highest authority in heaven and earth. Second, Paul tells us that when the Judean leaders and Roman authorities killed Jesus, they did not put a mere man to death, rather, “They crucified the Lord of Glory” (1 Cor 2:8). NB: Paul brazenly applies an attribute associated with God–the “God of glory” (see Acts 7:2; Rom 3:23; 5:2; 1 Cor 10:31; 11:7; 2 Cor 1:20; Rev 21:23)– to Jesus. N.T. Wright puts it well: “The ‘rulers and authorities’ of Rome and of Israel … the best government and the highest religion the world at that time had ever known—conspired to put Jesus on the cross.” These rulers did not recognize Jesus as the bearer of the regal and radiant splendor of God Almighty.2 Third, the place where Jesus’ glory will be supremely manifested is, of course, his second coming. Aramaic-speakers in the early church regarded the return of the “Lord,” Mara in Aramaic, as the coming of Jesus to judge the world (1 Cor 16:22; Rev 22:20; Didache 10.6). This is why Paul urged Titus to look ahead to “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Tit 2:13). The revelation of the Lord Jesus at the end of history would be the revelation of the glory of Israel’s God. The final and climactic manifestation of Jesus as Lord will take place at his second coming when he rescues believers from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1:10), gathers them to himself (2 Thess 2:1), and overthrows lawless authorities (2 Thess 2:8). This is the moment when Jesus will be by might what he is by right, the cosmocrator, the divine master and commander over everything and everyone! So whether it was expositing Scriptures like Ps 110, contemplating the glory of God in Christ, or waiting for Jesus’ return, all of this was saturated with the imagery of Jesus as Lord.
The lordship of Jesus Christ was not merely a doctrinal formula, but something that pervaded the witness, work, and worship of the early church. Have a brief glance through the Book of Acts and you’ll notice as clear as day that baptism, thanksgiving, prayers, hymns, praise, and celebratory meals all take place in the context of devotion to the Jesus Christ as the Lord. In the early church, the word and example of the Lord Jesus carry pre-eminent authority (1 Thess 4:15; 1 Cor 7:10; 11:1; 1 Pet 2:21). The preaching of the gospel was the proclamation of Jesus as Lord (see Acts 2:36; 5:14; 8:16; 9:5 10:36; 28:31; 2 Cor 4:5; 2 Thess 1:8). Knowing God meant knowing the lordship of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:17; 2 Thess 1:8). In fact, the most basic definition of what it means to be a Christian is one who confesses Jesus as Lord, because it is by such a confession that one is saved (Rom 10:9-10), and such a confession can only me made with the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). On a more chilling note, Paul declares that if anyone does not love the Lord, then he or she is cursed (1 Cor 16:22). Evidently loving the Lord Jesus is identical to the type of covenant loyalty that was expected of Israelites in the love for YHWH (see Deut 6:4; 10:12-13).3
We should also add there is a very sharp and subversive claim implied with the profession that Jesus is Lord. In the Roman world of the first century, Caesar was venerated as “Lord” over the realms he ruled, not just politically, but religiously too. Worship of the emperor all over the empire, while localized in form and varied in intensity, was aimed at ensuring the devotion of his subjects. In ancient media like coins, pottery, and poetry one can find celebration of the emperor as both a “god” and a mediator before the “gods.” In some inscriptions one reads statements such as, “Emperor [Augustus] Caesar, god and lord” and “Nero, the lord of the whole world.” Picture what it would be like to confess that Jesus is Lord in such a context. Visualize yourself standing on a street in downtown Rome announcing that a Jewish man put to death by a Roman governor had been installed as King of kings and Lord of lords! To some it might sound disgusting, while to others it would mark you as a political dissident or simply a lunatic. N.T. Wright rightly observes: “To come to Rome with the gospel of Jesus, to announce someone else’s accession to the world’s throne, therefore, was to put on a red coat and walk into a field with a potentially angry bull.”4
The best analogy I can provide is this: imagine you are in an extravagant hotel in Berlin during the 1930s for a dinner party attended by a mix of lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and military officers. While the evening is mostly polite and cordial, with small talk on everything from the stock market to the latest operas, a military officer suddenly taps his glass and proposes a toast to the Führer, Adolf Hitler. Then, as everyone stands, and raises their glasses, you, being the committed Christian you are, interrupt and propose an alternative toast. Everyone is startled and looks at you as you proudly utter in your best German, “Jesus der Jude aus Nazaret ist der wahre Führer” (Jesus the Jew from Nazareth is the true Leader). You probably won’t have long before the Gestapo comes and takes you away to a very nasty place for making such a subversive claim. Less I seem to be overstating the political dimensions of Jesus’ lordship, keep in mind that Nero did not have Christians thrown to the lions because they said, “Jesus is Lord of my heart.” The Romans were not interested in the internal dispositions of people’s lives. Confession of Jesus as Lord was always a scandalous and subversive claim. Profession of a “lord” is not merely religious language for adoration on some spiritual plane; it is also a matter of social and political protest. When it came to who was running the show, the Christians knew that there were only two options: the Son of Augustus or the Son of David. By singing and preaching about Jesus as Lord, they were opting for the later, a claim regarded by political authorities as seditious. As N.T. Wright suggests: “At every point, therefore, we should expect what we in fact find: that for Paul, Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.”5
It is worthwhile to think about what proclaiming Jesus as Lord means for us today. Some time ago H.A.A. Kennedy opined that “the term ‘Lord’ has become one of the most lifeless words in the Christian vocabulary.” When the title “Lord” lost its reverence it also lost its relevance and the title was reduced to something like “a spiritually meaningful religious leader.” That is a travesty because acclamation of Jesus as Lord is no empty confession or a vague religious platitude. More likely, as Kennedy himself adds, “To enter into its meaning and to give it practical effect would be to re-create, in great measure, the atmosphere of the Apostolic Age.”6 I concur with Kennedy because when we discover what it means to live with respect to the lordship of Jesus, then we can get closer to the pattern of devotion that the New Testament calls us to emulate. To confess that Jesus is “Lord” is to announce that he is Lord of all. At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, every Christian, every Jew, every Muslim, every Hindu, and every atheist, and they will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I don’t know whether you’ve thought about it, but this is deeply offensive and disturbing stuff to postmodern sensibilities. Confession of Jesus as Lord implies that all religions are not equal. Jesus is not a leader who has his authority curtailed by politicians or sociologists telling him which areas of life he’s allowed to give people advice on. Jesus is the boss of everyone’s religion, politics, economics, ethics, and everything. Jesus is not interested in trying to capture a big chunk of the religious market; to the contrary, he’s in the business of completely monopolizing it with the glory, justice, and power of heaven. And he has every right to do so, being as he the firstborn of all creation, and the cosmos is both his handiwork and his inheritance! Consequently Abraham Kuyper was right to declare that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence which Christ who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”7 If that is the case, then true discipleship is about dutifully and faithfully living out the lordship of Jesus Christ. Discipleship means ordering our lives according to his story, symbols, teaching, and authority. Evangelism is not about asking people to try Jesus the way they might try a new decaf moccacino latte from Starbucks. It is more like declaring the victory of the Lord Jesus over sin and death, warning of the judgment to be made by the Lord Jesus over all rebellion, and inviting people to find joy and satisfaction in the life and love that come from the Lord Jesus Christ.
In my visits to the United States I have observed a strong historically conditioned aversion to monarchs, masters, and lords in American culture. There is no American royal family – though if we get another Clinton or Bush in the White House it might be a de facto royal dynasty if you ask me – and such a family would not be welcomed in most quarters. Apparently America has no plans to recant its declaration of independence and to come under the gentle yoke of the English monarch any time soon either! Most American churches would probably loathe the prospect of having Prince Charles installed as the “Supreme Governor” of their respective denominations (and I confess that I share the aversion too). In a curious anecdote, R.C. Sproul observes:
Sometimes it is difficult for people in the United States to grasp the full significance of the title Lord. An Englishman came to this country in the decade of the sixties, and upon arrival spent his first week in Philadelphia becoming acquainted with historic landmarks, such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. In order to familiarize himself with American culture, he visited several antique stores that specialized in colonial and revolutionary memorabilia. In one such shop he saw several posters and signboards that contained the slogans of the revolution, such as No Taxation Without Representation, and Don’t Tread on Me. One signboard attracted his attention more than the rest. In bold letters the sign proclaimed: we serve no sovereign here. As he mused on this sign, he wondered how people steeped in such an antimonarchical culture could come to grips with the notion of the kingdom of God and the sovereignty that belongs to the Lord. The concept of lordship invested in one individual is repugnant to the American tradition, yet this is the boldness of the claim of the New Testament for Jesus, that absolute sovereign authority and imperial power are vested in Christ.8
I understand the patriotic dislike of foreign lords who might potentially attack and then tax Americans. Yet such an aversion to a “lord” might be taken too far in some contexts. Strange parts of American evangelicalism –the so-called “no lordship” advocates – have even contended that one should not even preach Jesus as Lord in evangelism, but only as Saviour. Apparently making Jesus lord of one’s life is something that is not meant to happen until much later in one’s Christian walk. Such a view, quite frankly, merits the mother of all theological face palms. Profession of Jesus as Lord is not asking for assent to the mere fact of his deity, but calling people to faithfulness, obedience, and allegiance towards him. Jesus wants followers not fans!9
If I may gently plead with my American friends, with your aversion to “Kings” and “Lords:” before you throw all the christological tea over side of the theological boat, reflect on the words of Paul: “Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love” (Eph 6:24). To love Jesus as Lord is to love Jesus’ lordship. We do this knowing that Jesus is neither a tyrant nor a despot. While Jesus is Lord of all, he is also Lord for all. The goodness, kindness, love, and compassion of Jesus as our Saviour is also reflected in Jesus as our Lord. If we were to make a Christian psalm book, the most common refrain should be, “The Lord Jesus is good, his love endures forever” (see Ps 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 29; 136:1)! To know Jesus as Lord is to know and taste that God is good.
Michael F. Bird is a professor of Theology at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry and a contributor to the Ichthus.
- The exception perhaps is Matt 7:22 where Jesus describes himself as the eschatological “Lord” of the end of history. ↩
- N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 116 . ↩
- D. E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (BECNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 774. ↩
- N.T. Wright, “Romans,” New Interpreters Bible, 10:423. ↩
- N.T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: MN: Fortress, 2009), 69. ↩
- H.A.A. Kennedy, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 439 cited in C.F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999), 2:239. ↩
- Cited in James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 461 ↩
- R.C. Sproul, Following Christ (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1996), 31 ↩
- Cf. further Darrell, L. Bock, “Jesus as Lord in Acts and in the Gospel Message,” BSac 143 (1986): 146-54; Millard Erickson, “Lordship Theology: The Current Controversy,” SWJT 33 (1991): 5-15; Michael S. Horton, Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992). ↩