Jesus Is Lord
There is found in the New Testament an appellation of Jesus which at once defines both his person and his relationship to the Christian believer. This appellation was so widely used among early Christians that it became the instantly recognized and universally acknowledged description of Jesus in every geographical location where Christianity spread. It so aptly summarized Christian belief about Jesus and his achievement that it became the predominant form of Christian confession by the time of the apostle Paul. This appellation was the simple title “Lord” (in Greek, Kyrios), which was utilized in the common Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.”
New Testament scholars are generally agreed that the confession “Jesus is Lord” occupied a prominent place in the churches of the New Testament era, and indeed was probably the prevailing confession of faith within first-century Christianity. Robert H. Mounce has declared that “Jesus is Lord” was the “earliest single-clause Christological confession of primitive Christianity.” And while Vernon H. Neufeld questions whether it was the earliest, he does claim that it is the basic confession in the Pauline epistles and that Paul did not originate it but likely received it from the primitive tradition of the church. With such conclusions George E. Ladd agrees: “The heart of the early Christian confession is the Lordship of Christ.”
The prevalence and significance of this confession loom so large throughout the New Testament that it is in some respects a matter of surprise that the term “Lord” as it is applied to Jesus has become the center of theological and practical controversy among modern evangelical Christians.
There is, however, no lack of clarity or certainty in the New Testament witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to the place occupied by the confession of Jesus’ Lordship in the life of the early church. Indeed, it seems beyond question that the fundamental confession of apostolic Christianity was “Jesus is Lord.” This confession concisely expressed both the objective fact of Jesus’ sovereignty and the subjective relationship of the risen Jesus to the Christian believer and the Christian community. For the sake of convenience this confession will be examined under two headings: its theological meaning and its ecclesiastical significance.
The Theological Meaning of the Confession
When the early Christians referred to or confessed Jesus Christ as “Lord” (as occurs scores of times in the New Testament) what did they mean? What was the theological content of this appellation or confession? The root meaning of the Greek term kyrios was “legitimate authority,” and this meaning carried into New Testament usage. An examination of the New Testament application of this term to Jesus yields at least four affirmations implied by the confession “Jesus is Lord.”
Jesus Is Divine
First, this confession meant that Jesus is divine or Jesus is God. The term kyrios, applied to Jesus in the New Testament, was the word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to represent the Hebrew name of God, YHWH or Jehovah. It is striking that this term is used without hesitation or qualification in the New Testament to refer to Jesus as well as to God. For example, the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth refers to him as “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:14), and Paul can apply Old Testament passages which speak of God to Jesus (e.g., Rom. 10:13). New Testament scholars commonly recognize that the ascription of Lordship to Jesus implies acknowledgment of his essential deity.
Jesus Is Exalted Savior
Second, confession of Jesus’ Lordship meant acknowledging him as exalted Savior. The New Testament uses the title “Lord” to refer to a new and distinctive phase of Jesus’ ministry, one marked by exaltation (beginning with his resurrection) and entry into the exercise of kingly prerogatives in contrast to his earlier (pre-resurrection) state of humiliation. A crucial passage here is Acts 2:36. In this first public proclamation of the gospel following Jesus’ ascension, the Apostle Peter drew attention to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation to the right hand of God (Acts 2:22-35), and then declared that “God has made Him both Lord and Christ” (v. 36). That God had “made” Jesus the Christ is somewhat problematic. It most likely means that upon his resurrection and exaltation Jesus entered a new phase of his messianic ministry. George Ladd states, “Jesus has entered upon a new function of his total messianic mission . . . In his exaltation Jesus becomes the Messiah in a new sense: he has begun his messianic reign as the Davidic king.” A similar meaning is attached to the title “Lord,” as used here. It obviously cannot constitute a mere assertion of Jesus’ deity, for as Peter used the term it is inapplicable to Jesus: he cannot be “made” God, for as the Son he always was God. Rather, it refers to the installation of the God-man Jesus in the position of divinely-exalted Redeemer and his entrance into the exercise of such authority as that position entails (such as bestowing the Holy Spirit, v. 33). As New Testament scholar Donald Guthrie observes, “Lordship here is undoubtedly an ascription of sovereignty in vivid contrast to the crucified Jesus.” Certainly Peter’s call for repentance (v. 38) demanded of his Jewish hearers no less than an acknowledgment that the Crucified One had now been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand.
Other passages which similarly express or imply a contrast between Jesus’ exalted state and his previous condition of humiliation include Romans 1:4, which declares “Jesus Christ our Lord” to be appointed “Son of God in power” through his resurrection from the dead, and Matthew 28:18, where Jesus claims for himself “all authority in heaven and on earth” in his resurrected state.
Jesus Is Supreme Authority
The last passage cited above, Matthew 28:18, with its claim of universal authority for Jesus, leads to a third aspect of the confession “Jesus is Lord.” It involves the recognition that Jesus is the supreme authority in the universe, under God the Father. An important passage in this regard is the much-discussed Philippians 2:9-11. Here Paul draws a sharp contrast between Jesus’ state of humiliation and death (Phil. 2:6-8) and the subsequent state of exaltation into which he entered (vv. 9-11). After his humiliation God “highly exalted” Jesus and “bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,” that at his name “every knee should bow” and “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” A persuasive case can be made that the name which the Father bestowed on Jesus at his exaltation is the title “Lord,” the name contained in the universal confession of verse eleven (“Jesus Christ is Lord”). This confession will eventually be offered by every personal being in the universe, which suggests that for some it will not be a confession arising from faith but an acknowledgment compelled by undeniable fact: Jesus has been made absolute sovereign of the universe, God’s mediatorial agent in exercising his own divine rule. “The confession,” writes Guthrie, “involves the acknowledgment of the universal sovereignty of Jesus.” That confession which believers now make by the aid of the Holy Spirit, “Jesus is Lord” (cf. I Cor. 12:3), shall one day be on the lips of all, even those who now reject his Lordship.
Jesus Is My Rightful Sovereign
Fourth, the confession of the Lordship of Jesus includes the willing acknowledgment that Jesus Christ is the rightful sovereign of the Christian believer. At this point the confession moves beyond the recognition of objective facts to the subjective application of those facts. In the very act of making this confession–if it expresses a genuine exercise of faith–the Christian assumes his rightful place before him who is the divine and exalted Savior and sovereign of the universe. Since the concept of Lordship signifies legitimate authority, then as Baptist theologian Millard Erickson writes, “accepting Jesus as Lord means making him the authority by which we conduct our lives.”
This insistence upon recognition of the subjective implications of Jesus’ Lordship must not be construed as the injection of human works-righteousness into the believer’s relationship with God as a ground of justification. It is nothing of the sort. Rather, it simply means acknowledgment in principle of the Lord Jesus’ rightful authority and sovereignty over the Christian believer. The working out of the implications of Jesus’ Lordship in practice will require the lifetime process known as sanctification in order to be accomplished, and this in no way serves as the ground of the believer’s justification before God. Understood in this way, confession of Jesus’ Lordship is simply the equivalent of repentance: it constitutes the giving up or relinquishing of one’s rebellion against God and the assumption of one’s rightful place before him who is Creator and Ruler of the universe.
The establishment of Jesus’ Lordship over believers seems to have been one of the purposes of God in the death and resurrection of Christ, according to Paul’s statement in Romans 14:9. Paul there declares, “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” John Murray has shown that Paul’s statement in this context should be understood as applying to Christian believers, and that the Lordship to which Paul refers was not Christ’s inherent Lordship of creatorhood but the acquired sovereignty of redemption. It is a sovereignty which believers are bound to recognize and honor, for, as verse eight declares, “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
The Ecclesiastical Significance of the Confession
If the confession “Jesus is Lord” bore such full and weighty content within the context of primitive Christianity, then the question next arises, what was the practical significance of this confession for the life of the church? What place did it occupy in the lives of early Christian believers and worshipping communities? The New Testament makes several points clear.
The Central Confession
First, “Jesus is Lord” was the central confession of early Christianity. Thus Paul writes in Romans 10:9, in a passage which many scholars regard as a pre-Pauline formulation of the gospel, “if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV). The confession and belief referred to, of course, imply trust in Jesus as the crucified and risen Savior and constitute an explicit acknowledgment of him as the exalted Lord. Another embodiment of this early confession is found in I Corinthians 12:3, where Paul writes, “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Here Paul seems to assume that “Jesus is Lord” is the basic confession of the Christian fellowship. A passage already examined, Philippians 2:9-11, incorporates this confession as that which will be offered by the whole universe on that day when all must stand before God and acknowledge that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Such strong indications as these leave little room to doubt that the confession “Jesus is Lord” occupied a prominent place as the central Christian confession of the New Testament era: it was that affirmation to which every Christian gave assent and which distinguished the Christian community from the unbelieving world. British scholar A. M. Hunter concludes from the New Testament evidence, “the confession of [Jesus'] Lordship–probably at baptism–made up the earliest Christian confession.”
A Personal Confession
Second, the confession of Jesus’ Lordship was a personal confession. It was an expression of the individual believer’s convictions and trust. The Apostle Paul makes this confession pointedly personal when he writes, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9, NIV). The personal nature of the confession was also perfectly captured by the believing Thomas when he exclaimed upon seeing the risen Savior; “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). George Ladd has again summed up the New Testament position quite well: “The Christian confession of the Lordship of Jesus means the recognition of what God has done in exalting Jesus, and personal submission to and acceptance of his Lordship.” While this element may not be explicit in every instance of faith observed in the New Testament, the evidence warrants the conclusion that it was implicit and that no one could be considered a Christian or admitted to the Christian community while rejecting the Lordship of Jesus.
A Corporate Confession
Third, “Jesus is Lord” was a corporate confession of the Christian community. One of the most striking but overlooked features of the New Testament is the frequency and simplicity with which Jesus is referred to as “the Lord” or “our Lord”, suggesting that he is the commonly acknowledged Lord of the entire Christian community. Two random examples will suffice to illustrate this phenomenon. Observe how Paul opens his letters to the Roman and Corinthian Christians. In Romans, his greeting includes an extended description of the gospel, which concerns “Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:4), and he wishes them grace and peace “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:7). The former of these phrases is particularly emphatic in the Greek, which literally reads “Jesus Christ the Lord of us.” Paul simply assumes that all Christians in fact acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Again, in I Corinthians 1:2 Paul extends greetings to “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” Here Paul virtually defines Christians as those who “call on the name of the Lord of us Jesus Christ,” then most explicitly identifies Christ as the Lord “of them and of us.” It is particularly striking, in view of the lack of practical holiness in the Corinthian church, that Paul refers to the believers there as those who have acknowledged in principle that Jesus is Lord, even if they were imperfectly working out the implications of his Lordship in their personal lives and in congregational matters. All this simply underlines the fact that Christians were those who acknowledged the Lordship of Jesus and that this common confession served to identify them as a people and to distinguish them from the world. Christians together adhered to and found their corporate identity in the confession “Jesus is Lord.”
An Eschatological Confession
Fourth, “Jesus is Lord” was an eschatological confession. By means of this confession the early Christian community was expressing two closely-related convictions: that God had inaugurated a new era–the kingdom of God–with the life, death, and exaltation of Jesus; and that Jesus would return in glory to bring God’s kingdom to its consummation. Such was the sentiment of the Aramaic exclamation in I Corinthians 16:22, “marana tha,” meaning “[our] Lord, come.” The ascription of Lordship to Jesus spoke with confidence of God’s final victory over sin, death, and all that opposed God’s rule.
Application: “Jesus is Lord” Today
When we move from the New Testament to the twentieth-century church and the meaning of the confession “Jesus is Lord” for today, three points of application emerge.
First, we may well ask whether the situation that prevailed in the apostolic churches ought not be the case today. That is, if confessing Jesus’ Lordship was central to the thinking and life of apostolic Christianity, should it not also be central for the twentieth-century church? What better way to set forth the meaning of Christ’s redemptive accomplishment, his authority over the believer and the church, and the expectation of his final victory than to make this confession central once again?
Second, in our presentation of the gospel, may it not be the case that the demands of Jesus’ Lordship should have primacy? Is not the typical biblical order that of repentance and faith rather than the reverse (Acts 20:21)? When Jesus is described as both Lord and Savior is it not always in that order (II Peter 1:11; 2:20; 3:2; 3:18; cf. also Acts 5:31, “a Prince and a Savior”)? Does not God call on all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30)? Would it not be expected that a rebel approaching his sovereign seeking forgiveness should be required to give up his rebellion as he casts himself on his lord’s mercy? If so, then it may well be that this element of the message ought to have preeminance as we present the truth to men. The gospel makes demands as well as promises.
Third, it is necessary that those who proclaim Jesus’ Lordship should seek to live out the implications of that Lordship in their own lives. “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him” (Col. 2:6, N1V). For those who declare the message, as well as for those who hear it, the confession must become a living reality: Jesus is Lord.