The “gospel” today comes in two main user-friendly varieties. There is a “hard” version, which says that we are sinners subject to wrath, but Jesus died for our sins so that we may have eternal life with God. And there is a “soft” version, which says simply, with a big smile, that God is love. For those who prefer their faith celebrity-driven, Mark Driscoll would represent the former, Rob Bell the latter.
A third option, however, has recently emerged—or better re-emerged—promoted not by pastors or evangelists but by scholars; and since scholars are modest, self-effacing people, those who prefer their faith celebrity-driven will just have to be disappointed. The third option is that the New Testament gospel is not in the first place a personal but a political message which may be succinctly stated in the form “Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not)”. The early Christian movement was by no means anarchist (cf. Rom. 13:1-7), but it was in a profound sense dissident, finally answerable to a king in heaven rather than a king in Rome. It was a political stance that would change the ancient world.
The advantage that the first two gospels have is that they are directly relevant to people today: Jesus died for me, God loves me. A political gospel, however, is inevitably also a historical gospel, a message announced under particular historical circumstances. In the New Testament there are two basic historical contexts, which I will outline below.
Our own historical context is very different, so what would it then mean for churches to proclaim today that “Jesus is Lord”? This is not a question that should bear directly on the choice that Americans will make next week—in a healthy democracy that comes under the responsibilities outlined in Romans 13:1-7. But the election provides an opportunity for all of us to reflect on the deeper matter of whether the church’s loyalty to Jesus as Lord is compromised by the nature of its current social existence.
Jesus is Lord in relation to Israel
A central element in Peter’s preaching to the “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem”, on the day of Pentecost, is that God has made Jesus “both Lord and Christ”, that he has been made to sit at the right hand of God until his enemies have been put under his feet, and that those Jews who call on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved from the judgment that will soon come upon “this crooked generation” (Acts 2:17-40).
The narrative frame of this announcement is drawn from the prophet Joel, who describes a “great and awesome day of the Lord” against Jerusalem, presaged by “wonders in the heavens and on the earth”, which only those who call on the name of the Lord will survive (Joel 2:28-32). The quotation from Psalm 110 further casts Jesus as the king of Israel, who will rule in the midst of his enemies and “execute judgment among the nations”.
In the political context of Judea around A.D. 30, therefore, the announcement that Jesus is Lord means that at this time of eschatological crisis Israel’s God has intervened sovereignly to overrule his enemies and make his obedient Son, whom he raised from the dead, “Leader and Saviour” of a renewed community of Israel (cf. Acts 5:31).
Jesus is Lord in relation to the nations
Peter addresses Jews within the horizon of Israel’s immediate future as a nation. But his reliance on Psalm 110 already indicates that the proclamation of Jesus as Lord will also have far-reaching implications for the nations. The one who is “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36) has been proclaimed to the Jews as the one “appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). Peter may only mean judge of Israel here, but by the time we get to Acts 17 and Paul’s address to the men of Athens, Jesus has been appointed as the one by whom Israel’s God will judge the pagan empire in righteousness (17:31). Historically speaking, this is arguably the most remarkable statement that is made in the New Testament, though of course it doesn’t stand alone.
Not only Jews but also Greeks, therefore, are saved from the coming wrath of God by believing in or calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:8-13).
The foreseen judgment of the pagan world under Rome is vividly depicted in Revelation 19:15-16:
From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
To proclaim to the ancient world that “Jesus is Lord” was to claim that he was “coming soon” (Rev. 22:20) to take possession of the nations and rule over them (cf. Ps. 2:8-9). He would be King above the many kings of the ancient world, Lord above the many lords of the ancient world.
This is the extraordinary outcome envisaged by the early prophetic communities—that sooner or later what YHWH had done to save his people from the disastrous consequences of their sins would be recognized by the nations, and that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).
That last phrase easily gets overlooked, but it captures the purpose of the whole narrative of Philippians 2:6-11. The God of Israel had very little “glory” in the ancient world, not least because his people persistently sinned and fell short of the glory of God: as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24; 3:23).
What Paul is saying in Philippians 2:6-11 is that Jesus was the means by which this situation would be changed. This story of self-emptying, obedience, suffering, death, and exaltation was how Israel’s God would get himself noticed among the pagans. This is how he would get the empire to take him seriously—by giving authority over all things to his Son. God would finally get the credit he deserved when Jesus and not Caesar was confessed as Lord.
Jesus is Lord after Christendom
Historically speaking the rule of Christ over the nations as King of kings and Lord of lords, which is widely predicted in the New Testament as an outcome in a foreseeable future, has to be understood in terms of the emergence of Christian Europe. Christendom was the concrete political expression of the victory of the living and true God of Israel over the gods of the ancient pagan world. Fifteen hundred years of European Christian culture—all the theologizing, all the cathedral-building, all the wars, all the schisms, all the missionary expansion—was founded on that premise.
Christendom has since gone the way of all political realities, and most of us are happy to see the back of it. With it has gone the massive social and intellectual representation of the victory of YHWH over the nations. Does that mean that Jesus is no longer Lord?
In a sense, yes. Jesus has been spectacularly dethroned by the invading forces of secularism, and his people have been driven into exile.
In another sense, no. For a start, many Christians would argue that the marginalization of the church in the West is to be welcomed. The church is no longer the servile minister to self-serving monarchs; the church has become a prophetic community again. There is some point to this analysis, but it does not alter the fact that, according to the central testimony of the New Testament, Christ has been exalted to the right hand of God to reign as Lord until the last enemy, death, has been destroyed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25-28).
So how is that central theological circumstance, which we confess, to be represented or embodied in the life of churches today? What new concrete forms of corporate obedience and dissidence are appropriate after Christendom, after modernity?
Modern evangelicalism has done its best to safeguard the private dimension of the lordship of Jesus by insisting that everyone must accept him as their personal Lord and Saviour. But the challenge we now face… the challenge that we are now at last facing up to is this: How do we convincingly embody the public dimension? What does it mean to accept Jesus as our corporate or ecclesial Lord and Saviour?
Christendom embodied the lordship of Jesus over the nations in an age of empires, and I doubt very much that things could ever have been different, whatever the Anabaptists may say. The priestly and prophetic community of the church must embody the lordship of Jesus today in an age of cultural globalization.
Just as Christendom was politically corrupt, so the church in this new era will be culturally corrupt. That is unavoidable. Nevertheless, the people of the living and true God is being driven by the Spirit into the public arena to demonstrate in its corporate life that Jesus is no less Lord than he was at the time of Constantine, and that his people are no more enslaved to the deeply ungodly forces of our culture than the early church was to the principalities and powers that ruled the pagan world.