“For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
—Romans 14:8, 9
“Jesus Is Lord” was the motto adopted by the World Council of Churches over forty years ago. And a very good motto it is. However, in light of the pronouncements that have flowed from that largely liberal aggregation one wonders what they might mean by “Lord.”
Much more important to Bible Christians is what God’s Word has to say about the meaning of Lord as it refers to Christ Jesus. There is much discussion, and even dispute, today as to what it means to confess that “Jesus Is Lord.”1 What does Lord mean?
II. How Jesus Is Lord
A great deal can be determined about individuals and language groups by their vocabulary and by the frequency with which they use certain terms. For example, in the Athabaskan language (“Eskimo”) there are a host of words for snow at various stages. A classical Greek lexicon will reveal the wealth of words that the Greeks had for dog and dog-related activities (chiefly hunting).
When we look at a concordance to the Greek NT we are struck with the prominence of the word Lord (Kyrios). Moulton and Geden devote seventeen columns of small print to this word, plus four references to lordship or dominions (kyriotes), seven uses of the related verb (kyrieuo) and two verses for the related adjective lordly or pertaining to the Lord (kyriakos).
Despotes, whose English derivative (despot) has an undesirable connotation, is used frequently and helps complete the picture, overlapping with Kyrios in meaning.
The NT use of these words, chiefly Kyrios, sheds a flood of light on the question that we propose with God’s help to answer in this article: What do we mean when we say “Jesus is Lord”?
The word history, or etymology, of Kyrios does not help us a great deal. Turner defines the secular meaning of the Greek word, “apart from religious contexts,” as ” ‘master,’ or a ‘guardian’ or ‘trustee.'”2
As usual, we must turn to usage to ascertain the meanings of the writers (and the Divine Inspirer) of the NT books. In the twenty-seven scrolls that make up our NT Canon we find at least seven ways in which Jesus is Lord.
1. Jesus Is Lord in His Dignity
We live in a very irreverent and iconoclastic age. This disrespectful and snide cultural milieu has sadly affected even nice, conservative people who basically respect our Christian heritage. Light and flippant things are said about sacred persons and things that would have horrified our ancestors (and still do appall many of us).
At the most basic level of usage, Kyrios denoted respect for our Lord even when the speaker was not yet aware of who He really was.
The Samaritan woman in John, who probably had an anti-Jewish bias due to her ethnic situation, nevertheless addressed Him as Kyrios (“Sir,” John 4:11, 15, 19—NKJV), a title of respect. The fact that kyrios can refer to both God and man sometimes makes it hard for translators to know which word to put in the English text.3
The man who was healed by Christ in John 9 asks: “Who is He, Kyrie, that I may believe in Him?” It is clear that this man did not yet know who Jesus was, so Sir might be a better translation here than Lord.
A theologically important usage of Kyrios is made by the repentant thief at Calvary. The dying thief requests, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:43). Such faith! There were no apparent signs of royalty on that occasion—except the regal way our Lord spoke and handled the situation even in His agony. Of course, even here the word could be translated “Sir,” but this would rob the passage of a great deal. Even worse is the critical text reading: “Jesus, remember me.” The human name Jesus,4 while dear to us by centuries of hymnology and Bible-reading, was a common name in the first century. The vast majority of manuscripts supports the reading Lord, that we believe stresses His divine majesty.
Jesus is also Lord in His titles of dignity. My late father, devout Scandinavian that he was, insisted on referring to Christ as the Lord Jesus. As a boy I didn’t understand the importance of this. Except for the Book of Hebrews (which does use “Jesus” without the Lord or Christ title, perhaps harking back to the human Jewish roots in the Gospels), the NT from Acts to Revelation generally does give titles of honor to our Lord Jesus Christ. Each has a special emphasis—Lord Jesus, Lord Christ, Christ Jesus, etc.
Today there is too much brash familiarity in addressing our Lord as “Jesus” all the time. We are well aware that many devout hymns are addressed to Christ by His human name of Jesus, and that godly Christians are fond of this His human name. But we show greater honor and respect when we address Him and refer to Him by one of His titles of dignity. One of the chief of these titles is Lord Jesus.
2. Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath
In the Gospels, when Christ heals on the Sabbath or allows His disciples to eat grain from a field on the Sabbath, He proclaims that He, “the Son of Man, is Lord even [or also, kai] of the Sabbath” (Matt 12:8). This means that He is not controlled by the Sabbath, but the Sabbath is under His control. This certainly suggests His deity. As God the Son He shared in giving the original Sabbath law to Israel in the first place.
As Man, Jesus submitted to the Sabbath law to fulfill all righteousness. He did not, however, submit to the traditions that had encrusted the law with pettifogging legalisms that actually contradicted the original good that God intended by the fourth commandment. Because Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, we can rejoice with Paul that no Christian can be called to book for keeping or not keeping the Sabbath (Col 2:16, 17).
The principle of rest every seventh day, however, is a blessing to man’s mental and physical health and is well worth maintaining.
3. Jesus Is Lord of His Day
Not only is Jesus Lord of the Sabbath, the OT day of rest, but what is more significant for NT believers, He is Master of His own day, the “Lord’s Day” (Rev 1:10). Some, using only the English text have said that this is really just another way of wording “the Day of the Lord.” Actually the construction is quite different in the Greek.5 “The Day of the Lord” represents the OT Day of YHWH, a day of divine retribution. Granted, this is a main theme in Revelation as a whole. However, in chapter 1 of Revelation the stress is on the Person of the Lord Jesus and John’s prostrate adoration of the very One on whose chest he had reclined his head so many years before. Again, as with the “Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor 11:20), the word is kyriake, lordly, dominical.6 The first day of the week in paganism was devoted to the sun (hence “Sunday”) and, with Nero and several others, to the supposedly divine emperor. In Christianity it is devoted to the Son, the risen, conquering Son. It commemorates His resurrection, His dominion (or lordship) over death, Hades, and the grave.
Christians can demonstrate their submission to Christ’s Lordship by observing the Lord’s Day. But how should it be observed? Certainly all agree we should worship together and hear His Word. Acts 20:7-12 presents the Lord’s Supper and preaching as standard elements in NT observance.
Is there continuity with the rest of the OT Sabbath? Some have gone so far as to make the Lord’s Day a legal burden rather than a gracious joy. I have heard of Christians in Scotland in the past who would not pull the draw string on their shades lest they break the “Sabbath.” This is not unlike observant Israelis who have timers on their house lights so they won’t have to flip a light switch on the Sabbath. Christendom’s opposite extreme, treating the Lord’s Day as strictly a weekend pleasure slot on their calendar, is even worse.
Active Christian workers, especially preachers and missionaries, often find Sunday to be the least restful of days! By and large, however, most believers can—to their health and benefit—maintain the principle of one day in seven for rest—also for worship and service as opportunities present themselves. As to what each individual should or should not do on the Lord’s Day, a personal submission to the Lord’s will in one’s own circumstances can decide the issue in the light of Scripture. We should neither offend others nor “judge Another’s [the Lord’s]7 servant” in this regard (Rom 14:4).
4. Jesus Is Lord in His Supper
One time the Apostle Paul used kyriakos, the adjectival form of Kyrios, to refer to the Supper of our Lord, literally the “Lordly Supper” (1 Cor 11:20).8
The context in 1 Corinthians 11 is one of disrespect on the part of some carnal Corinthians for this feast of remembrance. It was not the Lord’s Supper they were having, but rather a church supper to gratify their physical appetites!
As Host at His own Table, the Lord Jesus invites all the faithful (and some of the not-so-faithful) to come and dine with Him and His people. As the Lord of the Table, He leads the songs of the saints among His brethren: “I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You” (Heb 2:12, quoted from Ps 22:22).
One of the ways all believers can show their submission to Christ’s Lordship is to accept His gracious invitation: “This do in remembrance of Me.”
5. Jesus Is Lord and Master
Classic liberalism used to be fond of the title “the Master” for Jesus Christ. This should not obscure the fact from Bible Christians that this is a very good translation of at least one aspect of His Lordship, namely that He is Master, Lord, and Sovereign. Even the less than devotional (though highly useful word) “Boss” gives us some of the truth of this nuance of Kyrios.
In the Gospels our Lord tells several parables in which the key figure is a “boss” or lord, whether of a vineyard, an estate, or whatever.9 It does not take great insight to figure out who is represented by this man in various guises. Obviously, it is the Lord Jesus Himself.
Because of the emotional connotations of the words master and slave in Western history from the not-too-distant past,10 modern preaching on this topic tends to substitute employer and employee/servant in handling such texts as Eph 6:5-9 and Col 4:1. The word for servant in the NT passages is literally bondservant or slave. Paul calls himself a slave (doulos, from the verb deō, bind or tie) of Jesus Christ. Probably the traditional KJV translation servant is best in English due to the racial undertones that tend to creep into our use of slave. In the OT the slaves or servants were frequently of the same ethnic origin as their masters. For the Messiah as the Ebed-Yahweh, or “Servant of the LORD,” it would probably be misleading if the English word slave were used.
Be that as it may, we are not merely “employees” of our Lord! We can’t change employers if we are truly regenerated. Sometimes we are told to “make Jesus Lord of our life.” No doubt this plea is well meant. But He is Lord, whether we like it or not. The real question is: “What kind of servant (or slave) do we make ourselves?” If, like the OT slave who asked for his ear to be pierced with the awl to show his willing servitude, we submit and obey Him because we love Him, then we are on the way to becoming “good and faithful” servants (Matt 25:21). If we do not, we may prove to be lazy, unjust, or even wicked servants—but servants nonetheless.
While we could wish that all believers were disciples and good servants, the NT (especially 1 Corinthians), church history, and probably our own observations (perhaps even our own experiences!) all indicate that some Christians do not measure up as servants to anything approaching the ideal. Just to dismiss these people and to say they are not really saved, or worse (theologically speaking), that they “lost” their salvation, does not solve any problems, and certainly is not biblical.
Some believers gradually grow into a submissive servant mode through years of experience. Others seem to have a crisis event—at conversion, or more often later—when, in the words of one of our great English hymns, they “crown Him Lord of all.”
6. Jesus Is Lord of Lords
There are two or three other NT expressions used of Christ that give very strong witness to His absolute sovereignty, perhaps in an even stronger way than Kyrios.
One of these is the word despotes. From an English-speaking view-point this word is somewhat marred by the negative connotation of our derivative despot. Used ten times in the NT, this word is employed, like kyrios, for ordinary masters in Titus 2:9, for God in Zacharias’ Benedictus in Luke 2:29, and for God (or Christ) in the Jerusalem saints’ prayers in Acts 4:24. It is used in 2 Pet 2:1 for the apostates “denying the despoten that bought them.”
In Jude, a book that stresses what happens when professing religionists refuse to bow to Christ’s mastery, it is used together with Kyrios in the phrase “Our only Sovereign Lord God (Despoten Theon) and Lord (Kyrios) Jesus Christ” (v.4, author’s translation).
Another title of Christ as Sovereign, this time a phrase, is “Lord of lords” (Kyrios ton kyrion, Rev 11:15). This expression has been made world-famous by the majestic musical setting of the words by George Frederick Handel in his “Messiah.” This sort of expression is a Hebrew way of stating the superlative. The OT book Song of Songs means “The Most Exquisite Song.” The expression here signifies “The Most Absolute Sovereign.” Gentile kings in OT days were not too bashful to call themselves “king of kings.” As the late OT Professor Merrill F. Unger would put it, “Modesty forbade them to say more.
A similar phrase uses a participle in the genitive instead of “lords.” Kyrios ton kyrieuonton literally means “Lord of those lording” or “having dominion” (1 Tim 6:15).
7. Jesus Is LORD God
In his beautiful book on Christian vocabulary, Turner shows how the title Kyrios developed much deeper meaning than even “Master” in describing Jesus:
In Biblical Greek, however, kurios is a divine title, the LXX rendering of JHWH (God’s holy Name) and of adonai, (my Lord). We may expect to find the earliest Christian use of kurios in the Acts of the Apostles, reflecting the life and worship of the first believers. But in the earlier part of the book it is often difficult to determine the reference of kurios, whether it is to Jesus or to the Father. For instance, when the first believers prayed, ‘Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts’, were they addressing Jesus (Act 1:24)? The title seems to apply equally well to both Jesus and the Father…. A title, once the prerogative of God the Father, is rapidly coming to be applied to Jesus, His Son. ‘The fact is that we can almost see the Church’s faith growing before our eyes.’ We are quickly approaching a point where Kurios is a technical word with only one meaning, the ‘Lord’ Jesus.11
Helping us to see this development of meaning, Moulton and Geden print the Hebrew text in their Greek concordance wherever a NT reading represents a direct quotation from the OT, even if it equals a quotation by way of the LXX. Similarly, the New King James Version capitalizes LORD in those NT passages where it stands for YHWH in the OT reference cited. Of course, this should not be taken to mean that Kyrios cannot refer to the Lord Jesus as God where it is not a direct quote. (See Rom 10:9 as a likely example of the latter.)
Kyrios represents the Hebrew tetragrammaton, the four letters of the name of God (YHWH), considered by the Jews to be too sacred to pronounce, hence the substitution of another word, Adonai (“my Lord”) in public Scripture readings. This occurs thousands of times in this way in the LXX. As would be expected, most of these references are to God in a general way. Of those quoted in the NT only a handful can be taken to refer to God the Son specifically.
Matthew 3:3, “Prepare the way of the LORD” (Kyrios, YHWH), certainly refers to Christ’s road being prepared by John the Baptist. Surely the word Jehovah or Yahweh must mean the Lord Jesus in this context.
In the temptation account (Matt 4:10) the second usage of Kyrios represents a direct OT quotation again. Satan is rebuked by our Lord’s unwillingness to tempt His Heavenly Father by throwing Himself down from the high point of the temple. But at least a secondary meaning makes Jesus LORD God, for is there not also a direct rebuke to Satan for tempting Jesus? After all, unlike most of his devotees, Satan did not doubt the deity of Christ.
It is common in old hymns to apply Jehovah, the personal name of God in its English form, chiefly to the Father. Actually the name must refer to all three Persons of the Holy Trinity, even if OT usage (necessarily) emphasizes the First Person—the One the Son has taught us to call “Father.” Yes, Jesus is LORD in the highest sense; Jesus is God the Son; Jesus is Jehovah.12
It is all very edifying to read an article on the Lordship of Christ in its several areas. He is LORD in all these respects, whether we totally recognize it or not.
Readers who are not yet saved must receive this Divine Savior into their own individual lives by simple faith to be born again and justified (John 1:12).
If we have already accepted Him, our practical sanctification and future rewards will be largely determined by how soon and how deeply we submit to this Divine Master. However, these two aspects of Christ’s Lordship should not be confused. If man has to be totally submitted (or even willing to be totally submissive) to Christ as “Absolute Boss,” as a requisite for salvation, one wonders if there will be any at all to enter the kingdom.
In our understandable eagerness to keep works of any kind out of the presentation of the Gospel, we must be careful not to give the impression that we are against Christ’s Lordship. Far from it! We would be thrilled if all of us who are Christians were suddenly to become, like Paul, “bondservants of Jesus Christ.” While we do not believe in Lordship Salvation, we do believe in Lordship, and in “Lordship Discipleship,” if we may coin a new term.
Our attitude should be that described in Bishop Moule’s lovely hymn:
My glorious Victor, Prince Divine,
Clasp these surrender’d hands in Thine;
At length my will is all Thine own,
Glad vassal of a Saviour’s throne.
My Master, lead me to Thy door;
Pierce this now willing ear once more:
Thy bonds are freedom; let me stay
With Thee, to toil, endure, obey.
Yes, ear and hand, and thought and will,
Use all in Thy dear slav’ry still!
Self’s weary liberties I cast
Beneath Thy feet; there keep them fast.
Tread them still down; and then, I know,
These hands shall with Thy gifts o’erflow;
And pierced ears shall hear the tone
Which tells me Thou and I are one.
4Bruce Metzger does not discuss this variant in his A Textual Commentary on the Greek Testament. The reading Iēsou is supported by the usual Egyptian mss. that most modern NTs follow (in Luke, p75 אBC). The vast majority of mss., including A, read Kyrie, Needless to say, many critics will say the stronger reading is a later change toward a stricter orthodoxy. We believe there is ample material in the NT to warrant the highest Christology at the earliest date.
6The Didache (14:1) uses a somewhat redundant phrase “the Lord’s Day of the Lord” (kyriake Kyriou) for the day the Christians gathered to break bread. As “houses of the Lord,” church buildings, when they came to replace the earlier house churches, were called kyriaka (sg., kyriakon). They are still called that in Scottish and English forms: kirks and churches.