Jesus is Lord. It’s a phrase we often hear. It’s a phrase Christians often use. But is it a phrase we understand? I mean, truly understand.
It might sound simple enough. Jesus is Lord. Surely, it requires no thought longer than it takes to say. But just like John 3:16, perhaps the most memorized verse in Scripture, things can, at times, seem so familiar to us that they become commonplace. Things can seem so familiar that we think we’ve discovered all there is to know about those things.
But what more is there to know? The title itself is repeatedly used throughout the Bible. It appears over 700 times in the New Testament and 100 times in the Book of Acts alone. It was not a minor subject to the Apostles.
We still use the title “Lord” frequently today. We worship on the Lord’s Day, where we say the Lord’s Prayer, and eat the Lord’s Supper, at the Lord’s Table. We pray in the Lord’s name, and we speak of other Christians as being “in the Lord.”
These are all concepts adopted from the New Testament, and each concept is derived from that assertion that “Jesus is Lord.”
In the early days of the church, that phrase was unlikely to be uttered without a proper understanding of what it meant. The reason for this was that voicing such a statement had consequences. Devastating consequences. Often deadly consequences.
Why? Because in the Roman Empire, there was only one lord, and his name was Caesar. Under Roman rule, this basic confession of the Christian faith was considered an admission to treason, and treason was, of course, a capital offence.
Kaiser Kurios. Caesar is lord. Now that was the phrase Roman citizens were then required, not only to acknowledge but religiously affirm. Not as we might acknowledge the earthly authority of a President or Prime Minister, but as a supreme authority, even divine.
This was what the Empire wanted imprinted into the minds of the people. So much so that you couldn’t buy or sell without that confession being imprinted into much of the currency exchanged.
For Rome, there was one state, one empire, one lord. And it was through this that the authorities sought to maintain social harmony. It didn’t matter what the citizens’ social differences were. In the end, they were all children of the Empire. They were all subjects to the same lord.
What this meant was that anyone who refused to acknowledge Caesar as the supreme lord was viewed as a national threat. They were considered a risk to the stability of the Empire under their supreme unifying ruler. What’s more, they risked angering the gods.
As such, resistance could not be tolerated. Potentially competing lords were swiftly removed, and anyone who refused to confess Caesar as supreme was thrown to wild beasts, burned alive, or at best, beheaded.
But who was it then that refused to pledge their sole allegiance to the Roman Caesar? Who posed this supposed threat to the Empire?
Well, the only reason someone wouldn’t affirm Caesar as lord, was because they didn’t really believe Caesar was lord, and the only reason someone wouldn’t believe Caesar is lord was if they believe that title belonged to somebody else.
When the early Christians confessed Jesus as “Lord,” it was a direct indictment against the Empire. It was a denunciation of their grossly idolatrous Emperor worship.
Yes, God has established earthly governments, and he has set the boundaries in which they are to operate. But the Emperor was claiming more authority than he had any right to claim. In effect, he was demanding that the people render to Caesar the things that are Gods’ (Matt. 22:21). He was demanding the throne of Christ.
So, when the early church began, not only to refuse to bow to Caesar as supreme, but to confess Jesus as Lord, it was clear in the minds of the Roman authorities exactly what they were saying. To say Jesus is Lord was to say Caesar is not.
That was the accusation brought against the first Christians in Acts 17:7:
“These all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, one Jesus.”
To make that assertion was to forfeit your life. Take, for instance, the martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna.
Now, Polycarp was said to have been a disciple of the Apostle John, so as first-century persecutions against Christians increased, the bishop became a wanted man. When the authorities eventually captured him, we’re told the captain of the local troop tried to convince Polycarp to save himself.
He pressed the bishop, saying: “Just say Caesar is Lord, offer incense. What harm is there in that?”
But Polycarp refused, and consequently, he was taken as a prisoner to the arena.
The account states:
“As he was brought forward, there was a great uproar when they heard that Polycarp had been arrested. Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant, saying, ‘…Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent! Say, ‘Away with the atheists!’”
Early Christians were branded “atheists” by the Empire for denying the divinity of Caesar and the pantheon of Roman gods.
“So, Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathens who were in the stadium, motioned towards them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, ‘Away with the atheists!’ But when the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear the oath [to Caesar], and I will release you; revile Christ!’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’”
The Roman authorities then prepared a pyre and fastened Polycarp to it with ropes. They lit it, and as he burned, the account says, his body was not like flesh burning, “but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace.”
“When the lawless men eventually realized that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they ordered an executioner to go up and stab him with a dagger. And when he did this, there came out a dove and a large quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and the whole crowd was amazed that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect [of God].”
“Just say Caesar is Lord, Polycarp. Offer incense. What harm is there in that?”
What a contrast to what has today sadly become a commonplace phrase. The title itself has, in our culture, even been reduced to cursing now tolerable in children’s movies.
But is it commonplace for us? Have we truly felt the weight of that phrase? If someone were to ask you what it means that “Jesus is Lord,” how would you respond?
Answers may vary. There are, even within the church, numerous misunderstandings. But two, in particular, seem to stand above the rest in terms of their popularity.
First, we often hear people talking about our need to make Jesus our “personal Lord and Saviour.” It’s as though Jesus is not Lord until we appoint him as such. Until then, they say, he stands at the door of our hearts, politely knocking. He won’t enthrone himself over our lives until we grant him the permission to do so, or so we’re told.
The second acknowledges that Jesus is, in fact, Lord, regardless of our personal opinions, but it says his authority is distinctly reserved to the church. He is a spiritual authority, and as such, has no jurisdiction outside of the church itself, and certainly not in the secular and physical realm, nor over their institutions.
Jesus is Lord of the church, but he’s not Lord over education, law enforcement, economics, politics, or the local soccer club.
But both of these views are fundamentally flawed by artificially limiting the sphere of Jesus’ Lordship. In both instances, the dominion of Jesus as Lord is restricted, either by the will of the individual in the first case or by an unbiblically restrictive jurisdiction in the second.
If Jesus is Lord, then the question is, does his authority have limits? Is he the Lord of some things or is he the Lord of all things?
One of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith is that after Jesus’ death and resurrection he was taken up into heaven where he is presently seated at the right hand of God (e.g. Mark 16:19; Heb. 10:12).
Now, that means Jesus has been seated there for over 2,000 years, but that’s not 2,000 years of inactivity. Jesus is not sitting idly on his throne, watching the world tick by. The Bible tells us repeatedly that Jesus is now reigning as Lord.
In Acts 2:35-36, the Apostle Peter explained:
“David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Did you catch that? Peter did not tell the house of Israel to make Jesus their personal Lord. He said, “God has made him both Lord and Christ.” Jesus is Lord. And that means it’s not up to us to make him Lord. God has already done it. Our responsibility is to submit because he is Lord.
Now, there are a number of reasons why these limiting views of Jesus’ authority have been so popular in the contemporary church. One of the problems is that the title “Lord” no longer has earthly equivalents, at least not in our culture.
What the term means, particularly in the New Testament, is a supreme authority over someone or something else. It might also be translated as “Master.” So, it’s not surprising then that we see the Apostle Paul often referring to himself as a doulos, a slave or servant, of the Lord and Master Jesus.
What that means is, when God made Jesus Lord, he was given dominion and authority over someone or something. But what? What’s the extent of the Lord’s authority? As we noted, some might suggest it’s limited to spiritual matters. Some might say it’s restricted to church governance and theological matters, or that it’s only applicable to our personal and private religious experiences. But is that what we see in the Bible?
At the close of Matthew’s Gospel, right before Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, he gives the Apostles what we often call “The Great Commission.”
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus tells the eleven to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Now, that’s often all we think of in regards to the Great Commission, but that’s not all that Jesus said. There’s an important word I missed. Jesus doesn’t just say, “go and make disciples of all nations.” He says, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.”
In other words, they are to “go” in light of a previously stated fact. They are to “go” because of what Jesus said in the prior verse.
v.18 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…”
What is the scope of Jesus’ Lordship? What is the extent of his authority and dominion? All authority in heaven, and not just in heaven. That is a point we often overlook. Jesus said all authority on earth has been given to him.
All authority on earth. In Paul’s words, “God highly exalted Jesus and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:8).
In short, Jesus is the “head,” not only of his church, but “of all rule and authority” (Col. 2:1).
If there is a throne in heaven, Jesus’ throne is superior. If there is a throne on earth, Jesus’ throne is higher. If there is a name on earth, Jesus’ name is greater. If there is anything in existence, in heaven and on earth it is subject to our Lord.
That’s true, from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy, and everything in between. And that reality does not depend on whether we as individuals, or as a nation, acknowledge it to be so.
To put it simply: Jesus is the Lord of Australia. He is the King of the United States. He is Master over China, and every other nation on earth, because all authority has been given to him.
Hence Psalm 2:7-8 states:
“The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”
Daniel saw a vision of this reality, writing:
“Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, all nations, all languages should serve him.” (Dan. 7:14)
So important is this that Jesus alludes to it during his trial, warning the high priest that “from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).
The high priest knew what this meant. When he heard it he tore his clothes and pronounced death to Jesus.
What it meant was that there is no king higher, no President superior, no Prime Minister with more power, no politician, police officer, or military with more authority.
If there is a lord on earth, Jesus is that lord’s Lord. If there is a king on earth, Jesus is that king’s King. And if that isn’t clear enough, of all the things that the Lord of the earth could have written on his clothing, what phrase did he choose?
The Apostle John tells us in Revelation 19:16 that, “on his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings, and Lord of lords.”
Hence, God issues a warning to the kings and rulers of the earth at the close of Psalm 2:
“Now, therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
What is the extent of the Lord’s authority? In the words of Abraham Kuyper: “There is not one square inch in the whole [of creation] over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!”
It’s the basis of our marching orders as Christians. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, “therefore, [because of this fact] go make disciples of all nations” over which he now reigns.
Yes, we’re sure to face opposition. But though “the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain, the kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against his Anointed, He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.”
We’re in a world of chaos right now. We’re witnessing the inevitable result of rejecting Christ as King. But the encouragement for us, as Christians who acknowledge the authority of our Lord, is that we can take heart because “of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isa. 9:7).
Jesus Christ is Lord. He is king over all things. He has authority, not only over the nations of the earth, but over the individuals that make up those nations. Over you, and me. Over how we live our lives, big and small decisions alike. Not only what we do with our hands, but what we say with our mouths. Not only what we say with our mouths but what we think in our hearts and minds.
So, how then shall we live? What is the appropriate response to the proclamation that Jesus Christ is now, presently, King and Lord over everyone and everything?
First, repentance. That was the message of the early church: Jesus is Lord, therefore, repent and believe the good news. Turn from your treason, turn from your rebellion, turn from your sin, and turn to the king.
Look to what he has done to pardon his subjects. Look to the cross, to his suffering, to his death. Look to his resurrection and ascension to the eternal throne. There you will find forgiveness. There, the promise of his Holy Spirit. This is the Good News: Jesus is Lord.
The second response is prayer. Pray for those who have not repented. Not just for our friends and family members but, as Paul urged, “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions… for God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1).
What truth is that? The truth we only just celebrated last month. The truth we ought to celebrate every day. To quote the famous Christmas carol by Isaac Watts: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.”