Words that cost your life
The early Christians, our fathers and mothers in the faith, were persecuted. They were arrested, thrown in prison and brought before rulers.
“Deny Christ,” they were commanded. “Confess that Caesar is Lord.”
“Jesus is Lord,” they would say, and die.
“Jesus is Lord.” Three simple words, but words that cause the devil to rage, words that cost countless lives, words that are on our lips. What is it about these words, this simple confession, “Jesus is Lord,” that has so much power?
“My Lord and my God”
John’s Gospel culminates with the glorious confession of St. Thomas a week after the resurrection.
Thomas was not there the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples. “We have seen the Lord,” they told him. We can hear Thomas’s frustration rebuffing the disciples’ excitement: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails … and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25).
Jesus waits a week. But then He is back. He offers His hand and side to Thomas for inspection, and Thomas believes and believing confesses: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
Even though we have not yet seen the glorious scars in His hands and side, we confess with Thomas that Jesus is our Lord and our God. This is a wonderful confession on its face, but with a little Old Testament background there is even more wonder.
Cramming three Hebrew words into two English words
Throughout the history of Bible translation, translators have used two English words to translate three different Hebrew words. (Stick with me for a few minutes, I promise this will help with your reading of the Bible.)
The words in Hebrew are “ELOHIM,” “ADONI” and “YHWH.” ELOHIM means “God” or “gods.” ADONI means “lord.” YHWH (pronounced “yah-weh”) is the interesting one. This is the divine name. When Moses asks God in the burning bush what His name is, this is the answer (see Ex. 3:14–15). The ancient Israelites considered this name so holy that they would not speak it, nor would they translate it.
So, when the Bible was translated into other languages, “YHWH” was not. Rather, translators often used the word for “Lord” in its place. In Greek, the word most often used was “kurios.”
There is a helpful convention in our English Bibles to use capital letters for the divine name.
ADONI = Lord
ELOHIM = God
YHWH = LORD
YHWH ELOHIM = LORD God
YHWH ADONI = LORD GOD (because “LORD Lord” would be strange)
But the point of all of this is that there is a lot more to the word “Lord” than meets the eye in the English translation.
When Thomas confesses that Jesus is Lord, he brings all the history and theology of the Old Testament prophets and piles it on Jesus. When Thomas confesses Jesus as Lord, he confesses that Jesus is ADONI and that Jesus is YHWH. Jesus is the Lord and God who created the world, who called Abraham, who rescued the people from slavery. Jesus is the Lord and God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the Lord who saves.
The confession “Jesus is Lord” confesses the full divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the confession that the Lord who rescued and blessed the people in the Old Testament is none other than Jesus, the Son of God.
The one and only Lord
Ancient religion was full of gods. Early on, Roman officials accused Christians of being “atheists.” How fantastically strange this seems to us. I suppose, though, if you had thousands of dollars, the guy standing next to you with a $1 bill would seem broke. If I have a few thousand gods and you’re standing next to me with only one god, you seem like an atheist.
(Calling the Christians atheists resulted in one of the greatest moments in the ancient martyr stories. Bishop Polycarp was dragged into the arena where he would be killed, and the proconsul commanded him to denounce the Christians by saying, “Away with the atheists.” Polycarp waved his hands at the pagan and blood-thirsty crowd and said, “Away with the atheists.”)
Humanity gravitates towards polytheism. Our sinful flesh wants a collection of gods. This is why the exclusive claims of the Scriptures are so important, and so controversial.
It begins with the First Commandment. “I am the LORD your God … You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2–3). God does not share His glory. God does not share His throne: “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other” (Isaiah 42:8).
This exclusiveness runs through the Scriptures. Negatively, there is the “no other.” No other gods, no other way to the Father. Positively, there are things that stand “alone.” There is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:5–6).
The confession that Jesus is this one Lord is the bedrock of the Christian faith. “Jesus is Lord” is the most basic conviction and confession of the Christian. It is the first creed.
And it is not confessed in a vacuum. When the Christians confess Jesus as Lord, they are, at the same time, denouncing anyone or anything else making a claim to the throne. Jesus alone is the Lord; there is no other.
The battle for the throne
John Calvin famously said, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols” (Institutes, 1.11.8). We are constantly creating gods in our own image and likeness, gods that suit our dreams and desires.
This idolatry extends from the gross (sacrificing children to Molech) to the more subtle (worship of money or power).
There is only one true Lord, but there are lots of options when it comes to having a lord. There are lots of false gods, lots of idols, lots of things that we would put on the throne.
Jesus captures this fight for the throne brilliantly in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters [kurios, “lords”], for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24).
Lest we think we have kept the First Commandment by not bowing to a statue in some pagan rite, Luther presses us on what it means to have a god. What we trust is our god. “That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god,” (LC I 3). What we fear most, what we love most, what we trust most, what we look to for help: That is our lord.
False gods are always pressing in on us. We are always tempted to have a different lord. We learn from the Scriptures and we see in ourselves that we would have any lord but the true Lord. Left to ourselves we would never have Jesus as Lord.
St. Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Only by the work of the Holy Spirit can we know, believe and confess that Jesus is Lord. Only the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God can crush our hardened hearts and turn us to faith. Only the Holy Spirit frees us from our idols and brings us to trust that Jesus is Lord.
The confession “Jesus is Lord” excludes all false gods and idols and all pretenders to the throne. Hence, the confession “Jesus is Lord” enrages the devil.
The devil attacks the words “Jesus is Lord”
Make no mistake, the devil hates the confession that Jesus is Lord. He attacks it from every angle. In our own day, we often feel ashamed of claiming Jesus as our Lord. In the Ancient Church, that confession was often persecuted with the edge of the sword.
The first written mention of Christians in a secular context occurs in a letter written around A.D. 111. Pliny the Younger, the newly appointed governor of Bithynia, wrote to Trajan, the Roman Emperor, asking for advice in handling the Christian persecution. “I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent” (Pliny, Letters, 10.96–97).
Pliny wrote of the first trial of a few Christians. They were brought before him, and he offered them three chances to “repent,” that is, to deny Christ. They refused, and he ordered them executed.
Soon after, an anonymous document was published with a list of people thought to be Christian. Pliny gathered them all and, to determine if they were Christian or not, proposed three tests:
- Would they invoke the pagan gods?
- Would they offer a sacrifice of incense and wine to the Emperor at a little altar set up for that purpose?
- Would they curse Christ?
Those who made the offering and said “Lord Caesar” were released. Those who refused, those who confessed “Jesus is Lord,” would be executed. The stakes were high.
All the people Pliny gathered up denied Christ. Most said that they had been Christians some years before but had left the faith. They described what Christianity was to Pliny. These became famous words because they were first description of Christians outside the Scriptures:
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food — but ordinary and innocent food. (Pliny, Letters, 10.96–97)
The violence surrounding the confession of Jesus as Lord stems from the fact that “Lord” is a disputed title. The powers and principalities wanted to be called “Lord.”
Caesar insisted on it. The devil desired it and desires it still. The Christians refused to give this highest honor to any but Jesus.
But Jesus gives us the gift of being our Lord and the confidence to confess it against all obstacles. Peter encourages us:
Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:14–16)
The confession “Jesus is Lord” is always opposed, but Christians rejoice in the truth that Jesus alone is our Lord.
The Lord is the Redeemer
“Jesus is Lord” is good news, at least for those under His care.
The idea of having a lord is strange to modern Americans. We have no royalty, no lords. Things were much different in the ancient world. An earthly lord had a kingdom and was responsible for those who lived in his kingdom. This was great if your lord was good.
The Bible assures us that this is the greatest good news: Jesus is our Lord, and we live under Him in His kingdom. In fact, the Bible goes further. Jesus is the Lord who has fought for us and rescued us, who found us in prison in the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of His light and life.
As Martin Luther unfolds the teaching of the Apostles’ Creed, he picks up on the word “Lord.”
I believe that Jesus Christ, true Son of God, has become my Lord. But what is it to become Lord? It is this, that He has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness. (LC II 27)
These quotations pull us back to an ancient world where a lord had an army and then estate, and he provided protection, provision and even identity. The lord had a kingdom. So also our Lord has a kingdom:
For when we had been created by God the Father, and had received from Him all manner of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil, so that we fell under His wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, as we had merited and deserved. There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us. Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.
Let this, then, be the sum of this article that the little word Lord signifies simply as much as Redeemer, i.e., He who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same. But all the points which follow in order in this article serve no other end than to explain and express this redemption, how and whereby it was accomplished, that is, how much it cost Him, and what He spent and risked that He might win us and bring us under His dominion, namely, that He became man, conceived and born without [any stain of] sin, of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, that He might overcome sin; moreover, that He suffered, died and was buried, that He might make satisfaction for me and pay what I owe, not with silver nor gold, but with His own precious blood. And all this, in order to become my Lord; for He did none of these for Himself, nor had He any need of it. And after that He rose again from the dead, swallowed up and devoured death, and finally ascended into heaven and assumed the government at the Father’s right hand, so that the devil and all powers must be subject to Him and lie at His feet, until finally, at the last day, He will completely part and separate us from the wicked world, the devil, death, sin, etc. (LC II 28–31)
The confession “Jesus is Lord” means that Jesus is our Redeemer, our Champion, the one who fought for us, who paid the price of our ransom with His own blood, who fought the demonic tyrant who kept us in death and has brought us out into His rule of freedom, forgiveness and life eternal.
This is good news — the best news. Jesus has conquered for us, and we now live under Him in His kingdom. We are kept and protected by His strength and kindness. We are at home in His mercy.
The confession “Jesus is Lord” includes all He has done for us in His incarnation, birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. The entire life and death of Jesus was a rescue mission, and we — you, dear Christian — are the rescued! “Jesus is Lord” is the sweetest good news for us, His people.
Bryan Wolfmueller serves St. Paul and Jesus Deaf Lutheran Churches in Austin, TX. Find more at www.wolfmueller.co.