Paul and the Lordship of Jesus Christ

The title kyrios, “Lord,” was arguably the Apostle Paul’s favourite title for Jesus Christ. It is central to his Christology and expressive of Jesus’ relationship to his church and to all creation. The lordship of Jesus is to pervade every aspect of the believer’s life. By calling Jesus “Lord,” in common with other New Testament writers, Paul was signifying that Jesus shares in the divinity of YHWH, Lord God of Israel and that he, not Caesar or any other worldly power, has supreme authority over all things.

Paul uses kyrios over 200 times in his writings, most commonly as a title for Jesus/Jesus Christ, especially in the introductions and conclusions to his letters, where it is typically associated with thanksgiving or a prayer for grace and peace. Paul also makes extensive and almost unique use of the phrase “in the Lord,” en kyrio, to express the Christian state of unity with Christ and thus with other believers. Believers are to receive and greet each other in the Lord. They are to be strong and steadfast and to labour in the Lord. Christians rejoice and hope in the Lord and love, serve and submit to each other in the Lord.

The word kyrios means one who is in a position of authority, such as a master over a slave, a father over a son, or an official in high position. It was used extra-biblically to refer to deities and rulers, especially the Roman emperors and is also used generically in the New Testament, typically translated as “master” (eg., Matt 18:32, 24:43). In the gospels, the disciples often seem to refer to Jesus as Lord/Master in the sense of a respectful address (eg., Matt 8:21). Other invocations are more consequential, such as Thomas’s “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). What then, was the significance for Paul of kyrios  as a title of Jesus?

For Paul, the declaration of Jesus’ lordship is linked with his Sonship, his resurrection and exaltation and with his role in creation. Romans 1:4 proclaims that Jesus was declared to be “the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” This is not adoptionism; Jesus was declared to be the Son of God before his birth (Luke 1:35) and confirmed at his baptism (Luke 3:22), but prior to his death and resurrection he had humbled himself, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:7–8). He was the Son of God, but in the weakness of human flesh. After his resurrection, he could claim “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). The resurrection inaugurated Christ’s reign as Lord (Rom 14:9), and he now sits at the right hand of God, the ultimate position of power and authority (Rom 8:34, Col 3:1, Eph 1:20–23).

This concept of the Christ as Lord at the right hand of God is the fulfilment of the most oft-quoted text in the New Testament; Psalm 110:1: “The LORD (kyrios) says to my Lord (kyrios): ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” In the Hebrew text, the first kyrios equates to YHWH, the second to Adonay, the Hebrew for “Lord.” Typically, the sacred name YHWH was never pronounced aloud, but Adonay would be substituted by Jewish readers and the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) translates these instances as “Lord.” In taking his place at the right hand of God, Jesus was exalted as “Lord” in power. Hence, Paul often refers to Jesus simply as “the Lord.”

Evidence exists for the very early veneration of Jesus as Lord in the Christian community and it was evidently part of the tradition Paul received (1 Cor 11:23). Paul was later to write the astounding promise, “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). That this confession was no mere throwaway line but a central tenet of the early church’s faith may be gleaned from his letters to the Corinthians: “to… all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ — their Lord and ours” (1 Cor 1:2) and “for we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). Such genuine, life-changing confession of Jesus’ Lordship could only be accomplished by the working of the Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). Paul concluded his first extant letter to Corinth with an Aramaic phrase which he evidently expected his Greek readers to understand as part of the received gospel: Maran atha — “Our Lord, come!” (1 Cor 16:22; Mar being the Aramaic word for “lord,”)

Paul is at pains to distinguish the uniqueness of Jesus’ lordship from that attributed to pagan gods. 1 Corinthians 8:5–6 asserts that although the Graeco-Roman pantheon had “many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords,’ yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” Paul is not here forcing a dichotomy between the Father and the Son, as if to say, “over here on the one hand we have the Father, who is God but not Lord, and over here on the other hand we have the Son, who is Lord but not God.” On the contrary, as Thomas proclaimed Jesus to be “my Lord and my God,” Paul is here associating Jesus with God’s creating work, as Lord of creation. Colossians 1:15–20 reinforces the role of the Son in creation, declaring that he is the image of the invisible God, in whom all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.

Another remarkable passage is Philippians 2:6–11, a hymn which relates Christ’s empting himself, in taking the nature of a servant and in the humiliation of the cross: “…Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 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.”

This is a reference to Isaiah 45:22–23, one of the clearest monotheistic passages in Scripture; “I am God, and there is no other… Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear” and prior to this, “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (v18). This universal acclamation which God the Lord has reserved for himself alone is specifically granted to the Lord Jesus. The name that is above every name, now the given name of Jesus, is “Lord,” the name of YHWH God of Israel.

The Scriptures of Jesus, Paul and the early church were the Septuagint, in which theos translates elohim (‘God’) and kyrios stands in for YHWH, following the Jewish tradition of reading Adonay. Paul not only applies kyrios specifically to Jesus, there are also many passages where it is unclear whether God or Jesus is meant, and passages where Paul is alluding to or quoting Septuagint references to kyrios as God, which he applies to Jesus.

Romans 10:13 is clearly talking about the Lord Jesus as can be seen from the immediate context of the passage. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” is a quote from Joel 2:32 (see also Acts 2:16, 21, 36). Yet in Joel’s context the Lord is undoubtedly YHWH. Here an Old Testament text referring to Lord God is applied to Lord Jesus. “Calling on the name of the Lord” is associated with salvation in Christ and baptism into his name in the New Testament (Acts 9:14, 21; 22:16; 1 Cor 1:2), the equivalent of calling on the name of YHWH in the Old Testament (Gen 12:8; 26:25; Psalm 99:6; 105:1). In the Old Testament, salvation belongs to God alone (Exodus 15:2; Psalm 68:20; Isaiah 43:3). His Son takes the role of Saviour, as Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11) in bringing justification (1 Cor 6:11) reconciliation (Romans 5:1, 11) eternal life (Romans 6:23) — in short, salvation (1 Thess 5:9).

The Old Testament “Day of the Lord,” has been transformed from the Day of YHWH (Isa 13:6-9; Ezek 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:31; 3:14; Amos 5:18-20; Zech 14:1; Mal 4:5) to the Day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Thess 5:2; 1 Cor 1:8; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; 2 Thess 2:2). This Day is associated with judgment, a prerogative of God that has been given to Jesus. In Psalm 96:13 “the Lord …comes to judge the earth, he will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.” In Romans 2:16 Paul states that God will judge through Jesus Christ and interchanges the judgment seat of God (Rom 14:10) and of Christ (2 Cor 5:10). Thus we see that the lordship of Jesus is associated with functions and attributes ascribed to YHWH. The inescapable conclusion from Paul’s application of the designation kyrios to Jesus is that he somehow shares in the identity of YHWH.

Paul perceived two major practical implications of Jesus’ Lordship for believers. Firstly, as Lord, Jesus has ultimate authority (Matt 28:18; Eph 1:20-22). Jesus has rightful authority over the believer as a consequence of being both Creator and Redeemer (Col 1:15–20). In confessing Jesus as Lord, believers enter a new relationship with him, acknowledging his lordship over their lives (1 Cor 1:2; 8:6). This relationship is experienced by the church, as a fellowship of those redeemed by him who acknowledge his lordship; “And he is the head of the body, the church,” (Col 1:18). The lordship of Jesus is not just relevant to the initial decision to submit to him, but is the context for all of life “in the Lord.” Because of what the Lord has done for us we should live in a way that honours him. For example, in Romans13–15, having explained the saving work of Christ in detail, Paul shows how the Roman believers should manifest their submission to the lordship of Christ and God; kyrios in these verses appears to oscillate between God and Christ. See also Paul’s appeals in 1 Cor 1:10; 1 Thess 3:6–12; Eph 5:8–10, 6:1, 4; Col 3:22–24. Paul’s thinking about the comprehensiveness of living in the Lord is summarised in Romans 14:8: “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” To confess Jesus’ lordship is no mere incantation or passing comment, it means the acknowledgement of and submission to his lordship in all of life. But the Christian doesn’t “make” Jesus Lord; it is God who made Jesus Lord and those who hear the gospel are called to acknowledge his lordship.

A second important consequence of Jesus’ lordship is that, if Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. This was significant as the imperial cult grew in prominence, but has application in any age wherein a human ruler seeks to usurp the prerogative of God to rule (eg., 2 Thess 2:3–4). For two centuries, Christians were severely persecuted for refusal to acknowledge the gods of Rome and the imperial deity. Paul’s gospel of the lordship of Christ was a direct challenge to absolute allegiance to or worship of Caesar. But to proclaim such a gospel where a crucified Jew was Saviour and Lord was subversive and treasonous to Romans and foolishness to Greeks (1 Cor 1:23).
For Paul and the other New Testament Writers, Jesus was not merely “a” lord, or even limited to “our” Lord — a descriptor he loved to use. Jesus Christ is THE Lord, to whom every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, as God (Isa 45:23; Rom 14:11; Phil 2:10–11). Furthermore, Jesus Christ shares with his Father the utterly unique title of King of kings and Lord of lords Deut 10:17; Psa 136:3, 1 Tim 6:15 and compare Rev 17:14 and 19:13-16).
At this Easter time, we focus anew on the crucifixion of the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8) and his resurrection, whereby he was exalted to the right hand of the Father in universal Lordship. We share the confidence of our brothers and sisters who died confessing Jesus as Lord, that he will return in glory and vindicate them, and that every authority and power will one day acknowledge the consummation of his lordship, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Further reading for those interested in this topic:
Christophe, T Alan. Jesus is Lord. (Hertfordshire: Evangelical Press, 1982).
Hurtado, Larry W. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
Wright, Christopher JH. The Mission of God. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006).

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