No designation of Jesus in the early church had deeper significance than the title Kurios, "Lord." It was used by the earliest Christians to express their veneration for Jesus as the risen and and ascended Christ. In fact, New Testament scholars today commonly recognize that the simple statement "Jesus is Lord" is the fundamental declaration of the Christian faith. This was the earliest Christian confession of faith, and great stress was laid upon it. On the day of Pentecost, for example, the apostle Peter boldly declared: "'Let all Israel then accept as certain that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah'" (Acts 2:36, N.E.B.).* Jesus was now "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36). At His name "every knee should bow" and "every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil. 2:10, 11).
Next to Christos, "Christ," Paul's favorite designation of Jesus was Kutrios, "Lord." It has been calculated that, exclusive of the pastoral letters, Paul uses the title "Christ" 343 times, and "Lord" 216 times.' Paul laid great stress on the significance of the confession "Jesus is Lord." In fact, he declared: "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9, R.S.V.). It seems probable that the pronouncement "Jesus is Lord" was made by every convert to Christianity on the occasion of his baptism.'
Although the title "Lord" was more frequently and spontaneously applied to Jesus after His resurrection and ascension, it was also given to Him during His earthly ministry, according to the Gospels (Matt. 7:21; Mark 11:3; Luke 6:46, etc.). At times it may have been simply a title of respect (Matt. 8:2, 6, 8; Mark 7:28), or it may have reference to His teaching authority (Luke 11:1; 12:41). But it can also have a higher significance (Matt. 8:25; Luke 5:8). Jesus Himself prepared the way for the use of this designation by quoting and applying Psalm 110 to Himself (Mark 12:35-37; 14: 61, 62, and parallels). So this term Kuirios became the universal and central title to suggest the important and decisive role of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith.
What does the title kurios mean? This Greek word was at first an adjective, meaning "having power or authority." It described one who had such power or authority. Then it came to be used as a descriptive noun to designate one with special power or position. A "lord" was one who had control. Sometimes kuirios in the New Testament means simply "owner" or "master," as the owner of a vineyard or the master of a house (Matt. 20:8; Mark 12:9, etc.). The meaning "owner" easily passes into that of lord, master, one who has full control of something; the master was lord of his slaves, the emperor was lord of his subjects, the gods were the lords of men.'
The Greek-speaking Jews referred to their God as "Lord." In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, kuirios is not only used as a translation of the Hebrew word adonai or lord, but, since Adonai was also read by the rabbis in place of God's personal name "Yahweh" or "Jehovah," Kuirios was also used to render it. Therefore to any reader of the LXX "Lord" was a common name for "God." Applied to God, the title denotes His power over the world and men as the Creator, the ruler, and the giver of life and death.
There are passages in the New Testament in which "Lord" refers to God the Father (Matt. 11:25; Acts 17:24; Rev. 4: 11). There are other passages in which it is difficult to determine whether the reference is to God the Father or the exalted Christ (Acts 1:24; 2:47; 8:59; 9:31, 35; 11: 21; 13:10-12; 16:14; 20:19; 21:14; Rom. 14: II). But in the vast majority of the New Testament passages where kuirios occurs the reference is to Jesus Christ.
'When Christians designated Jesus as Lord they regarded Him as one possessing supreme authority and power. This designation of Jesus as Lord goes back to the earliest years of the Christian church. It did not originate with Greek-speaking Gentile Christians, but was in use among Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians.
The common language of Palestinian Jews in the days of Jesus was Aramaic. This, in fact, was Jesus' mother tongue, and we still have four expressions in Aramaic from Jesus' lips preserved in our English Bible (Mark 5:41; 7:34; 14:36; 15: 34). Another Aramaic expression is preserved by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. It is Maranatha (1 Cor. 16:22). This expression was derived from the Aramaic-speaking Christian church and taught by Paul to his Gentile converts.' What does Maranatha mean? Mar means "Lord," and Maran "our Lord." So the phrase has been variously translated as: (1) "The Lord has come," referring to the incarnation, life and ministry of Jesus, as marking the origin of Christianity. (2) "The Lord is coming," taking the verb as a prophetic perfect and thus referring to the hope of the Second Advent. (3) "Our Lord, come!" taking the phrase as a longing plea for the Second Advent of One whose authority has been demonstrated by a resurrection. One who had been appointed as Final Judge. One whose triumph over sin and death made Him a champion of good.
The third translation is the one adopted by the Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible, and agrees with the closing words of Revelation: "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." But no matter which of the three possible renderings is correct, it is evident that even the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians had no hesitancy in calling Jesus their Lord, even though they were taught from childhood as Jews that "God is one" and they knew that "Lord" was a title of Deity.
The "Lord" was both the historical Jesus whose commands bind believers, and the exalted Christ who is destined to be the ruler and judge of the living and the dead. The book of Revelation speaks of Him as "King of kings, and Lord of lords" (Rev. 19:16).
The simple confession "Jesus is Lord" on the lips of Christians was "not so much a statement of belief as an oath of allegiance." By that confession each new disciple declared that he was taking Jesus as his Master and the Lord of his life. It was a vow of obedience and service.
As Christianity spread into the Gentile world, it was inevitable that there should be conflict with competing cults, and particulary the Roman state and the cult of the emperor. Not only were the heathen gods of the mystery cults called "lord," but Caesar himself was "Lord." While this title was refused by the first two emperors, Augustus and Tiberius, the emperors who followed accepted it, and Domitian insisted on the use of the expression Dominus et Deus foster, "Our Lord and God,- in referring to him.
In an age when Caesar was designated as both "lord" and "god" it meant something for Christians to swear their allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. In many ways the Caesars were tolerant of various religions.
They would have allowed Christians to call Jesus Lord if they had been willing also to recognize the imperial cult. But the Christian position is plainly stated in I Corinthians 8:5, 6: "For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many 'gods' and many lords'—yet for us. there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist" (R.S.V.).
The issue thus was sharply drawn. The Roman emperor demanded that he be regarded as lord and god. But for a Christian to apply these terms to any human being was a repudiation of Christianity, and men gave their lives rather than to call Caesar "lord." Even in the days of Paul there is documentary evidence from Thebes to show that Nero was designated as "the lord" by the Roman world.
in Carthage in A.D. 180 a Christian named Speratus was brought before the judgment seat of the Roman proconsul, P. Vigellius Saturninus, and commanded: "Swear by the genius of our lord the Emperor." His reply was "I know no imperium of this world. . . . I know my Lord, the King of kings and Emperor of all nations."'
Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was burned alive at an advanced age on February 22, A.D. 156, because he would not compromise on this point. As the story goes, the police captain and his father asked, "But what harm is it to say, 'Lord Caesar,' and to offer sacrifice, and so forth, and to be saved?"8 Later when urged to swear by the genius of Caesar to revile Christ, and be set free he replied: "For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" 9
The record of his martyrdom closes with these words: "Now the blessed Polycarp was martyred . . . , a great sabbath, at the eight hour." Then significantly it says: "And he was arrested by Herod, when Philip of Tralles was High Priest, when Statius Quadratus was Pro-Counsul, but Jesus Christ was reigning forever, to whom be glory, honour, majesty, and an eternal throne from generation to generation."'
Is not the very essence of Christianity today, as anciently, to "reverence Christ as Lord" in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15, R.S.V.)?
* The New English Bible, New Testament. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961.
1 Shirley Jackson Case, The Evolution of Early Christianity, p. 113.
2 Ernest F. Scott, in Interpreters Bible, vol. 7, p. 180.
3 William F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pp. 459-461.
4 Ibid., p. 492.
5 Scott, op. cit.
6 Adolf Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East, pp. 353, 354.
7 Ibid., p. 356.
8 The Martyrdom of Polycarp, viii. 2. in Loeb Classical Library, The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 2, p. 323.
9 Ibid., ix. 3.
10 Ibid., xxi. 1.