The Biblical Teaching
The Synoptic Gospels contain diverse uses and meanings of the term Lord when applied to Jesus. Many instances of the use of the term do not designate deity. On some occasions, those who called Jesus “lord” were using the concept as a form of an address to a superior, somewhat in the sense of our modern “sir” (Matt. 8:6). The disciples of Jesus referred to Jesus as “lord” as a designation for rabbi or teacher (Matt. 8:21) or in the sense of “master” (Mark 11:3). After the confession of Simon Peter of Jesus as Lord at Caesarea Philippi, however, the term began to have the sense of messianic king (Matt. 18:21). Jesus applied the term to himself to indicate his deity (Matt. 24:42; Mark 12:35-37).
The identification of Jesus as Lord in the Book of Acts was a declaration of his deity, suggesting that all that was true of God in the Old Testament was also true of Christ. The lordship of Christ was revealed at Pentecost as Jesus fulfilled his promise to send the Holy Spirit. The sovereignty of Jesus was seen in his ability to keep his promises, even when absent. To send the Spirit was the prerogative of God in the Old Covenant; Jesus was now the sender of the Spirit.
In Peter’s Pentecost sermon, he declared that Jesus was the remover of sin (Acts 2:38; see also 7:60; 10:43). The disciples proclaimed that Jesus had the power to act as redeemer and deliverer. These functions—activities considered in the Old Testament to be the sole prerogative of God—were now accredited to Jesus of Nazareth. In the early chapters of Acts, the designation Lord connotes the ideas of redeemer (Acts 2:21), savior (Acts 2:21), coming one (Acts 2:20; 10:42), leader (Acts 1:24), sustainer (Acts 7:59-60), eternal one (Acts 10:36; 11:17), judge (Acts 2:20; 10:42), and ruler or authority (Acts 2:34). Because Jesus performed all these functions, the early believers regarded him as the rightful Lord. Jesus was “Lord” in the sense of the exalted, messianic king (Acts 2:36) and the resurrected one (Acts 4:33).
As Lord, Jesus was the one guiding and building the covenant community (Acts 1:24-25; 9:31). The lordship of Jesus Christ was revealed to Stephen to sustain and encourage him during his martyrdom (Acts 7:55, 59). As Lord, Jesus has authority over the Jews and the Gentiles and demonstrates his sovereignty through the inclusion of both groups into the church. Jesus manifests his lordship by judging both the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).
The epistles of the apostle Paul abound with references to Jesus as Lord. Each reference has profound theological implications for the person and work of Christ. For example, Paul declared that the lordship of Christ was revealed through his preexistence and his participation in the creation of the world (1 Cor. 8:6). The genuineness of regeneration and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is revealed through the confession that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3). The expression “Our Lord, come!” (1 Cor. 16:22) may be a reference to the second coming of Christ, a reference to his presence in the worship of the congregation, or both.
As Lord, Jesus is designated as “the powerful Son of God by the resurrection from the dead according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4). The earliest confession of redeemed believers was “Jesus is Lord,” which accompanied the inner conviction that God raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 10:9). The universal confession of all creation at the Last Judgment and in the final state will also be “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:11)
The Johannine writings have numerous references to the concept of Jesus as Lord. In his Gospel, the apostle John noted several occasions when Jesus was called “Lord”: Peter (John 6:68; 13:6, 9; 13:37); the man blind from birth (John 9:38); Mary and Martha (John 11:3, 21); John (John 13:25); Thomas (John 14:5); Philip (John 14:8); and Judas (John 14:22). These uses seem to be the equivalent of Messiah or Son of God. The designations of Jesus as Lord in the post-resurrection chapters signify his deity (John 20-21). The direct confessions of Jesus as Lord by Thomas (John 20:28) and Peter (John 21:15-17) also refer to his deity. Although the most common use of the term Lord in the Book of Revelation is to God the Father, Jesus is also called “Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20-21), “Lord of lords and King of kings” (Rev. 17:14), and “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16).
The New Testament teaching of the lordship of Jesus Christ emphasizes both his lordship over creation and his lordship over his church. His lordship over the created order includes all creatures, unseen powers, human governments, and the entire universe. According to the apostle Paul, Christ will eventually hand his kingdom over to God the Father when the end comes (1 Cor. 15:24), at which time all earthly rule, authority, and power will be abolished. Although the reality of his rule is certain, unbelievers live oblivious to his governance and in rebellion against it. The presence and power of sin must now be biblically and theologically interpreted in light of Christ’s sovereignty.
Many of the biblical and postbiblical instances of the phrase “Jesus is Lord” are designations of his full deity, equal in divinity to God the Father. The earliest confession of the church (“Jesus is Lord”) distinguished those who believed in Jesus from those who did not. This confession came to identify those who were truly the disciples of Jesus Christ. The term lord had powerful linguistic and theological connotations; most notably the term was used to translate the Tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew characters used to represent the sacred name of God in Hebrew). The translation of the Hebrew word could be “Yahweh.” It was regarded as improper to pronounce the name of God; an alternative word (adonai) was used in Hebrew.
In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the word kurios (lord) was used to translate the Tetragrammaton (YHWH). Kurios eventually came to be reserved for God. The first-century Jews recognized that use of the term kurios for any person other than God was idolatrous and that the word should only be used in referring to God. So when the disciples call Jesus LORD, they knew exactly what they were saying.
Implications of the Lordship of Jesus
The confession “Jesus is Lord” is a declaration of his full deity. As already noted, the term lord that was reverently and uniquely applied to the God of the Abrahamic covenant would also be ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth. The lordship of Christ is most clearly revealed in the light of his resurrection although indicators of his lordship were revealed before his crucifixion. Jesus Christ is the living Lord, who exerts and manifests his sovereign rule from the exalted status at the right hand of the Father.
The reality of the lordship of Christ is realized and appropriated through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The designation “Lord” must be exclusively reserved for Jesus Christ alone. To declare that Jesus is Lord is to confess that he alone is the sole Sovereign. In a pluralistic context that affirms the validity of countless world religions, heretical cults, and atheistic or humanistic beliefs, the declaration of the lordship of Christ is counter-cultural and singularly distinctive.
The lordship of Christ is a revelation of the sovereignty of God in general and of the Son of God in particular. The incarnation of God in Christ is “the greatest of all conceivable expressions” of divine sovereignty. The incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ reveal that the sovereign Lord has taken the initiative in salvation and is the revelation of full deity. The sovereign Lord has achieved and is working to reconcile God with man.
One of the greatest demonstrations of divinity is the creation of life. Because Jesus is Lord, he has the power to give life. As previously noted, numerous passages in the New Testament connect Christ’s lordship to the resuscitation of Lazarus from the dead, his own resurrection from the dead, the regeneration of believers with spiritual life, and the resurrection of believers from the dead. As a demonstration of Christ’s divine authority, the same power that subjects all things under his sovereign rule also imparts resurrected life to those who are believers, conforming us as his subjects “into the likeness of His glorious body” (Phil. 3:21). The giving of life in creation, in human life, in the new birth, and in the resurrection demonstrates that the Lord has conquered and subjected our greatest enemy: death (physical, spiritual, and eternal) under his divine rule.
The lordship of Jesus also indicates his complete dominion. To confess that Jesus is Lord is to confess that Jesus is Ruler. Christ is Lord over his creation and his church. The proclamation of the gospel in the early church was to call upon sinners to submit themselves to the lordship of Christ. The early Christians believed that they lived under the dominion of the Lord Jesus. Recent attempts in evangelicalism to divorce the lordship of Christ from the preaching of the gospel and the Christian life are a distortion of biblical revelation. The separation of the Saviorhood of Jesus from the lordship of Jesus is contrary to the overall witness of the New Testament.
As a Baptist, we believe that the church exists under a Christocracy. Christ rules absolutely and immediately over those who belong to him. E. Y. Mullins referred to this rule of Christ as “an absolute monarchy,” the most absolute the world has ever known. The monarch is in heaven, and he relates to his subjects through his divinely revealed word and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s subjects have direct fellowship and interaction with him. Jesus communes with his followers directly through a personal relationship with him as well as corporately through his interaction and rule over his church.
The whole of creation comes under the complete lordship of Jesus. He is the sovereign firstborn over all creation, since it was created through him and is sustained by him (Col. 1:15-16; Heb. 1:3). The structure of Colossians 1:15-20 suggests that Jesus has the same relationship over the created order that he has over his new creation, the church. Because he sustains all things by his powerful word (Heb. 1:3), Jesus providentially guides and governs all aspects of creation. The purpose of God is to bring all things (creation and church) to their fulfillment in the Lord (Eph. 1:10).
The lordship of Jesus includes his direct guidance of his disciples. This direction occurs through their obedient surrender and the increasing conformity of their lives to his will. Jesus called for his disciples to hear and obey all his teachings (Matt. 7:24-27; 28:20) and to follow him in discipleship and self-renunciation (Mark 8:34). Their loyalty to him was to transcend their love for earthly possessions (Luke 18:22) and family allegiances (Luke 9:59-62; 14:16). Because of the nature of his lordship and the extent of his rule, the lordship of Jesus demands complete and unequivocal surrender. For the Christian, to declare “Jesus is Lord” is to commit to live in obedience to his teachings and to submit to his direction of their lives by the Holy Spirit.