What do we mean when we say that Jesus is Lord?

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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.

Doug in CO | Thu, 11/01/2012 - 20:24 | Permalink


I have two problems with your thesis.  First, there is no indication that I’m aware of, outside of the presumption that the New Testament was written in Greek and that the Greek terms were inspired and so inerrant, that the Greek term (carrying with it Greek definitions) kurios has any particular significance in theology outside of its use to translate the Aramaic terms behind it (including maryah, meshiah or Messiah, and others).  In fact, both of these Aramaic terms occur in the Aramaic New Testament text where the Greek New Testament uses the term Kurios and Christos, though without consistency, so either the Aramaic translators were making up their uses off of the top of their heads or the Greek translators were combining terms without jusification (just like Gehenna and Hades are both translated Hell).  Because Christ spoke Aramaic to the masses, and the concepts involved derived from his thoughts and speeches, it seems to me that kurios in the Greek New Testament is simply the closest synonym in that language most of the time, but that it probably shouldn’t drag with it any theological assumptions that don’t originate with the Aramaic (or possibly Hebrew in the case of Adonai) origins of the terms used.  You might say that we know that Paul wrote in Greek, so it is OK to take Greek-centric understanding of the term.  Though I am not convinced that he did in fact originally write in Greek or speak primarily in Greek (the Areopagus being an exception), the bottom line is that he was still using the term as a synonym for the concepts found earlier in both the Old Testament and Jesus’ teaching which were done in Hebrew or Aramaic.  Before making too much of kurios, I’d suggest making sure that it meant the same thing in those languages.

Second, your comment, “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”, simply can’t be backed up by church history.  The Syriac Church of the East was larger in population and landmass at the time that “Christendom” started.  It extended from approximately Jerusalem, to the Steppes, to the tip of India, and to China for many hundreds of years.  It collapsed with the conquest of Islam, so it’s possible that your comment about the promised eschatological kingdom having collapsed might apply here too.  But, the fact that this wasn’t a Roman-centric kingdom makes me question your entire premise that “Christendom” was anything particularly significant, or that the collapse of it was eschatologtically meaningful.  A similar argument might be made for the Eastern Orthodox church as well.  The Ethiopean Orthodox church might be disappointed at the whole conversation.  It’s not like there is no longer a Roman Catholic Church (which is doing quite well in the third world), just that Europe (a comparatively small outcropping on the map where almost none of the efforts of the Apostles were invested) has chosen to abandon its religious foundations.

I’d suggest that the point of the kingdom of God is that it is extra national and that no success or failure of a human kingdom can threaten it.  The success or failure of God to establish this kingdom cannot be measured by the failure of a slice of it in a few given generations.

@Doug in CO:

I’m not sure I follow your first point, but the argument about kyrios is not dependent on the simple meaning of the term, whether in Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew, but on the Old Testament narratives that are invoked in one way or another, such as 2 Sam. 7; Pss. 2, 110; Isaiah 45; Daniel 7. These narrative are much less affected by fluctuations in meaning between languages.

As for your second comment, I agree that there was a significant far eastern church, etc., but that is beyond the purview of the New Testament. The New Testament is only really interested in the reach of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē from Jerusalem to Spain. The climax to the conflict that is depicted in Revelation is judgment on Rome. This is the limited historical outlook of the New Testament. It does not embrace the whole of human or even church history. The rest we have to work out for ourselves.

I’d suggest that the point of the kingdom of God is that it is extra national and that no success or failure of a human kingdom can threaten it.

I agree with that as an ultimate position, but I would argue that along the way, as the people of God deals with its inescapable contextualization, we have to recognize that political and social realities do fall within the prophetic vision. The biblical God is a God of history, and his reputation in the world is very much dependent on the historical condition of his people.

@Andrew Perriman:

You might be right that kurios is a perfect translation of Hebrew and Aramaic terms for “Lord”, but I don’t hear people talking about it as such.  Instead, if I understand Wright correctly, he is very focused on how the Roman leadership would understand the term.  I’d rather approach it from what the Hebrews would understand.  The other point that I brought up, but which I understand if you aren’t that interested in since it wasn’t directly argued in your article, is the difficulty in using verbal plenary inspiration (which requires absolutely perfect communication down to the minutae of the grammar involved) when the comments were made in either Hebrew or  Aramaic, but they are recorded in Greek.  I’ll understand if you want to leave this for another day.

I’m surprised that you see the New Testament as only concerned with the Roman Empire oikoumene.  The vast majority of the Apostles commissioned in the NT died in the east.  James was written to the 12 tribes that had been scattered primarily to the east.  Almost all of the Christians who were in Jerusalem up to the invasion by Rome in 66AD (the Jewish leadership of the NT church) ended up in the Mesopotamian Valley.  The promises to Israel that were part of the fulfillment of events surrounding their Messiah per Isaiah and Ezekiel (and others) is focused evenly on Egypt and Persia (I’d suggest evenly splitting the benefit between the west and east).  In Daniel 7, we see the destruction of the fourth beast (I’d argue representing Rome) which matches the character of the scarlet beast of Revelation, but the three other beasts (I think most agree, and I’d argue, that these represent three eastern empires) continue until an unspecified end (which would argue that they lasted past the events the destruction of Rome, and are thus part of a future prophetic event).  It seems to me that focusing too closely on the narrative of the synoptics and Acts results in an exageration of sola scriptura, as if the only things that happened were recorded in the NT as compiled by Protestants post 1600AD.  I rely on scripture as authoritative, but there is more to church history than the Acts of the Apostles.

@Doug in CO:

Doug, the point about the focus on the Roman world is that this is the region that is in explicitly in view in the New Testament. There is no reason to think that James has in mind diaspora Jews outside the empire. Egypt and Persia do not feature in the New Testament, though Persia may be envisaged as an enemy of Rome in Revelation. The New Testament makes no reference to Daniel’s first three beasts.

Of course, things developed in ways that were not described or predicted in the New Testament. But it remains true, on the one hand, that the New Testament narrative is concerned almost entirely with the relation between God’s people and the Greek-Roman world (the Ethiopian eunuch is a rare exception); and on the other, that European Christianity (including eastern orthodoxy) has been and continues to be the overwhelmingly dominant form. There are very few churches that do not trace their lineage back to Constantine, one way or another.

@Michael Davis:

Michael, I wouldn’t say “purely” political terms, precisely because that would suggest that the theological dimension is excluded. In the New Testament worldview—as in, say, Isaiah 45—the political is thoroughly religious, and vice versa. The point is that what we would otherwise call “political” outcomes—what happens to communities and nations—is of central importance for New Testament thought.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 11/02/2012 - 11:44 | Permalink

Nice post.

The narrative frame of this announcement is drawn from the prophet Joel, who describes a “great and awesome day of the Lord” against Jerusalem

The alternative way of presenting things would be to say that judgment on Jerusalem was included but not exhausted by Joel’s prophecy. The potential for remainder is strongly suggested by the pivotal change which came about following Jesus’s death and resurrection. Unlike all OT judgment/renewal prophecies, this one did not entail the continuing existence of Israel. Rather, it entailed the fulfilment of the worldwide promises made to Abraham which were to come through Israel. Israel was the booster rocket in relation to the space probe, if you like.

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

This is where the thesis begins to show flaws: there is little concrete evidence of this so called grand judgment in time on Rome or the ancient world as presented here, in contrast with the very concrete evidence of a judgment on Jerusalem. Judgments, perhaps, but that’s not the same as the overarching ‘judgment’ which the thesis proposes.

The evidence suggests we are still living in the continuing shadow of ancient Rome — its thought forms, political outlook, imperial tendencies etc.

Christendom is also a very superficial term to describe the consequences of the ‘Christianisation’ of the Roman Empire (despite the fashion for proclaiming its contemporary demise).  The word captures something of these consequences, which live with us today, in the life of about half the church worldwide (not an inconsiderable number or achievement), but as anyone who has studied church history will know, it by no means describes the whole picture, which includes the other half, if you like, of the billion or so adherents of the Christian faith worldwide.

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.

Again, a statement which, at best, contains a half truth only. In fact, it would be more accurate to replave private with personal here, though persoal should not be confused with individualistic. Church history once again demonstrates the very public and social nature of this personal faith, especially in the last 200 years. Thought when did modern evangelicalism begin? Wycliffe? Huss? Tyndale? Luther? Calvin? Wesley? Whitefield? Edwards? Booth? etc etc.

So — Jesus is Lord, but in a much bigger sense than the thesis proposes, in my continuing, though humble, scholastic, and not at all celebrity-driven opinion.

Nice post, nevertheless.

@peter wilkinson:

This is where the thesis begins to show flaws: there is little concrete evidence of this so called grand judgment in time on Rome or the ancient world as presented here, in contrast with the very concrete evidence of a judgment on Jerusalem.

It seems to me—whether the historical evidence is there or not—that the New Testament speaks unequivocally of impending divine judgment against the pagan order and ultimately against pagan Rome. Paul preached a coming judgment on the oikoumenē, wrath against the Greek, the Thessalonians turned from idols and waited for Jesus to deliver them from the coming wrath, and Revelation climaxes in the overthrow of Rome. The expectation, moreover, is widespread in Jewish literature of the period. It is impossible to think that the New Testament does not use the same language and imagery with the same end in mind.

But it’s the early Christendom perspective that’s particularly interesting. In [amazon:978-0631221388:inline] Peter Brown quotes the words of a Christian priest, Isidore of Pelusium (a seaport close to modern Port Said, Egypt) in around A.D. 420:

The religion of the (pagan) Greeks, made dominant for so many years, by such pains, by the expenditure of so much wealth, and by such feats of arms, has vanished from the earth.

He then comments:

All over the Roman empire, articulate Christians, such as Isidore, claimed to enjoy the inestimable advantage, in a time of rapid change, of belonging to a group convinced that history was on their side. They looked back on the century which followed the conversion of Constantine as an age of triumph. They saw the changes of that time against a majestic, supernatural backdrop. Long ago, Christ had broken the power of the gods. When Christ was raised on the Cross at Golgotha, the invisible empire of the demons had crumbled. What happened on earth in the fourth century merely made plain the previous, supernatural victory of Christ over his enemies. It was a “mopping up” operation. The dislodging of the demons from their accustomed haunts—the removal of their sacrificial altars, the sacking of their temples, the breaking of their statues—was presented as the grandiose, and satisfactorily swift, equivalent, on the public level, of the well-known drama of exorcism. In exorcism, the gods were driven from the body of the possessed by the victorious power of the Cross. Now they would be driven, equally brusquely, from the temples, and the sign of the Cross would be carved on the doorposts to mark the triumphant “repossession” of the temple by Christ. (72)

He describes how a group of pagan nobles listened to a sermon by Augustine of Hippo:

What they heard was an exhortation to wake up, to listen to the strepitus mundi, the roar of the Roman world, like the unanimous chanting of a great crowd in the circus, as it acclaimed the victory of Christianity. (73)

I would say that there is a pretty close match between the early Christian conviction that wrath was coming against the Greek, expressed in the language of Jewish apocalyptic, and such accounts of the victory of Christianity over paganism—as I point out in [amazon:978-1606087879:inline].

The evidence suggests we are still living in the continuing shadow of ancient Rome - its thought forms, political outlook, imperial tendencies etc.

That’s our problem, not Paul’s. It makes historical sense to suppose that the apostles and prophets made predictions concerning the growing conflict between the churches and pagan empire, expressing the belief that God would eventually vindicate them for the obedience and faithfulness. It does not make historical sense to suppose that they foresaw how things would play out beyond that horizon.

@peter wilkinson:

In fact, it would be more accurate to replace private with personal here, though personal should not be confused with individualistic.

Correct, though in my experience most people do construe “personal Lord and Saviour” primarily in individualistic terms. But there is still a difference between a personal acceptance of Christ as Lord that has a social dimension and what I’m arguing for here, which is that the lordship of Jesus has to do in the first place with the self-understanding of communities in relationship to their society.