“Lord” is an odd word in today’s culture. As Christians, we say “Jesus is Lord” on a regular basis. But this has become a rather churchy word. Non-Christians do not use it; no one walks around saying, “Snapchat is my Lord!” So what do Christians really mean when we say Jesus is Lord?
Often people equate “lord” with “God.” If this is the case, then “Jesus is Lord” simply means “Jesus is God.” It becomes a descriptive statement regarding the identity of Jesus, but says nothing about the relationship of the speaker to God. As James remarks, even the demons believe there is one God (2:19). Thus, it seems that the believer’s proclamation, “Jesus is Lord,” must mean something more.
In fact, “God” is not the only meaning for “lord” in Scripture, and even when the term does refer to God, there is a deeper connotation. On a basic level, the idea of lordship addresses a power relationship. One who is “lord” has power over a subordinate. In the ancient world, a person would address another as “lord” if the latter held a higher social rank: a servant to a master, a citizen to a ruler, a disciple to a teacher, a peasant to a nobleman.
Old Testament authors frequently used the term “lord” for the God of Israel, but it meant something more than simply “God.” They considered God’s name to be so holy that they would not pronounce it aloud. When Jews read Scripture in the synagogues, the term “lord” became the standard replacement for the name of God. It was a fitting term, connoting God’s supreme power and Israel’s deference. God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses similarly display this power disparity, reflecting the suzerainty treaties of the ancient Near East. These treaties ratified agreements between a greater king (suzerain) and a less powerful king (vassal). The entire book of Deuteronomy reflects the style of such treaties, including blessings for the people of Israel when they fulfilled the terms of the covenant and curses when they did not. To declare that God is “lord” in this context meant that one has submitted oneself to God’s rule; it was an acknowledgment of God’s superior power and good will. God was provider and protector. In return, Israel pledged complete loyalty to God’s way of doing things.
By the time Jesus walked onto the stage of first-century Palestine, however, the Jewish people found themselves under the control of the Roman Empire. Citizens were expected to declare their political loyalty to Rome by proclaiming “Caesar is Lord.” Since some of the caesars (emperors) were considered to be divine, such a proclamation had both political and religious ramifications. To say that Caesar is Lord meant that you promised your loyalty to the Roman Empire, including the various political and religious policies of that government. For a Jew, whose covenant with Yahweh demanded exclusive loyalty to all of God’s commands, one could not also proclaim loyalty to Caesar. The same became true for those who began to understand Jesus as the divine son of God. Declaring “Jesus is Lord” meant that they served Christ in every aspect of their lives. They could not separate their religious beliefs from politics or family or ethics. Christ was Lord over all (1 Cor 8:6, Phil 2:11).
In today’s culture, these power dynamics sound a bit odd. Although we might call someone “Mr.” or “Dr.” out of respect, we are not proclaiming loyalty to that person. In fact, sometimes the term “Mr.” can be laden with sarcasm and disrespect (when Agent Smith hunts down Neo in The Matrix, for example, he repeatedly calls him “Mr. Anderson”). We certainly would not replace the term “sir” with “lord”! And even when we recognize a power dynamic in one sphere of our lives—at work, for example—that relationship does not carry over into our personal lives. We tend to live in a very compartmentalized way. Our boss does not dictate what we buy at the grocery store or where we plant our garden. Our individualistic American culture tends to frown on such restrictive relationships.
The idea that “Jesus is Lord,” then, may be rather difficult to grasp in a culture that prizes independence, compartmentalization, and self-sufficiency. Yet, when Jesus commissioned his disciples after his resurrection, he declared that he had all authority on heaven and earth; with this authority, he told his disciples to make more disciples—instructing them to obey everything Jesus had commanded (Matt 28:18-20). This included the command to love God and love others, the ethical instructions from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus’s teachings about caring for the poor and oppressed, and so on. Jesus did not teach about religious life alone—he taught about marriage and wealth and humility and so much more. If Jesus Christ really is Lord, and if we recognize the power relationship inherent in such a statement, then believers are compelled to keep all of Christ’s commands. We are not simply free to pick and choose, ignoring the claims we do not like and keeping the ones we do. When we do that, we become our own lords rather than submitting to the lordship of Christ.
Perhaps rather than asking if Jesus is our Lord, we should ask ourselves who or what has the most power over our lives. What commands our greatest attention during the day? Do we spend more time reading posts on social media than we spend reading Scripture? Are we more concerned with what our boss thinks of us than what God thinks of us? Do we spend so much time taking care of our family or focusing on academics that we are left too exhausted to pray? Do we defend our sexual choices so fervently that being a child of God is no longer our primary identity or authority? Are we so concerned with our own financial security that we fail to heed God’s call to help the poor around us?
Each of us struggles with different “lords” that draw our attention away from Christ and toward our own desires. Anything—sex, wealth, power, celebrity, family, food, social media—can become such a strong power that we choose to live by cultural standards rather than biblical norms. But if we truly proclaim Jesus as Lord of our life, then we must be willing to submit to God’s teaching in all areas of our lives. We do so because we recognize that God is our loving protector and provider. Since God designed us and knows what makes us flourish, submitting to this lordship results in far more blessing than the “lords” of the world can offer.