The Lordship of Christ in the life of the believer
A.J. de Visser
Biblical perspective: the fact of Jesus’ Lordship
On the day of Pentecost the apostle Peter proclaimed to the Jews in Jerusalem that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36) This statement, made on ththe 50 day after Jesus‟ resurrection, reflects one of the most remarkable characteristics of early Christianity: Jesus of Nazareth was believed to be both Messiah and Lord.
Living many centuries later, we may easily fail to appreciate the extraordinary development which had taken place in such a short time. After all, the term kyrios (Greek for „lord‟) had been used by
Greek speaking Jews as an equivalent of the Hebrew adonay, the name which was used to refer
to God. If Jesus was called kyrios, Lord, it meant that He was given divine status. Given the fact that the faith of the Jews was monotheistic, it was quite amazing that the first believers, immediately after Jesus‟ resurrection, referred to Him as “the Lord”. In effect, this placed Jesus on the same level with God!
Indeed, this is so remarkable that the idea has been questioned by many. An influential
book in this regard has been W. Bousset‟s Kyrios Christos (German original, 1913). Bousset
claimed that the so-called „high Christology‟ of the NT emerged only gradually in Hellenistic
circles. The original Jesus, Bousset alleged, was just a Galilean rabbi. The Jesus whom we
find in the NT and who was called the Kyrios, was the product of later Hellenistic theology.
Bousset‟s hypothesis has always been rejected by orthodox Christians. Recently it has been
dealt a fatal blow by L.W. Hurtado in his massive book Lord Jesus Christ (2003). In this book
Hurtado shows that the rapid rise of belief in Jesus‟ divinity was not a later development but
that it was part and parcel of the faith of the earliest (Jewish) believers. Although worship
was reserved for God alone in Jewish faith, Jesus was worshipped by the first Christians as
well. Apparently these believers saw no contradiction in worshipping both God and Jesus.
They professed their faith by saying Kyrios Jesous, “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9).
That Jesus was called „lord‟, was not only remarkable from a Jewish perspective. In the Graeco-
Roman society of those times the title „the kyrios‟ was a reference to the Roman emperor. To the Greek and Roman ear, then, it must have been startling, maybe even offensive, to hear Christians refer ro Jesus as their Lord. N.T. Wright asserts that “the early Christians declared that Jesus was
lord in such a way as to imply, over and over again, that Caesar was not.” (2003:568).
How could the early Christians be so sure that they were right in worshipping Jesus as the Lord? In the first place two events had taken place that made an enormous impression on them: the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven. The gospels do not hide the fact from us that Jesus‟ own disciples were initially unable to believe that their master had risen from the dead (see Mark 16:14). But once they were convinced that He was alive, it made such an impression on them that only one conclusion was possible: Jesus was both Lord and God, as the apostle Thomas indeed exclaimed (John 20:28).
The same applies to the ascension. This time the event was witnessed by the disciples, and when they had seen Jesus being taken up into heaven, it is mentioned that they worshiped him (Luke 24:52). Worship! They gave to Jesus the same glory that is given to God.
It is clear that Jesus‟ resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven, were the two
events that gave the early Christians the boldness to believe and to confess that Jesus was the Lord.
At the same time, their convictions were based on a fresh reading of the Old Testament. Many passages in the Old Testament which had indicated that the future Messiah would be a kingly figure from the line of David, suddenly came to light. A few examples of such passages are Psalm 2 with its reference to the son of God who will receive the nations as his heritage, Psalm 89 with its promises about the line of David that will continue forever, Isaiah 11 with its reference to the shoot from the stock of Jesse which will grow out and judge the earth with righteousness, Isaiah 42 with its reference to the Servant who will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. These and other passages indicated that the Messiah would be a royal figure whose kingship was going to have universal dimensions. The early Christians believed that these prophesies had been fulfilled in Jesus. For a clear example of this, see the prayer of the believers in Jerusalem (Acts 4:23-31).
From the earliest times Christians have believed that Jesus is the Lord. This title had enormous implications, because it put Jesus on a level that was higher than wordly rulers, even on the same level with God. The early Christians based their belief on the amazing events of Jesus‟ resurrection and ascension. They also saw it as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah-King.
Biblical perspective: the implications of Jesus’ Lordship
What are the implications of Jesus‟ Lordship, according to the Scriptures?
By way of introduction let me make two general observations.
First, the Lordship of Jesus implies that He is in a position of divine status, and that He is worthy to be worshiped. One well-known passage that refers to this aspect, is Phil. 2:10-11, which speaks about Jesus as having been exalted to the highest place and having received “the name that is above every name.” Consequently, it says that at the name of Jesus every knee shall 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.
Now it would take the church centuries to think through the doctrinal implications of the fact that God is one, and yet, that Jesus is divine as well. The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated much later, but that did not prevent the early Christians from honoring Jesus as “the Lord”.
A further implication of Jesus‟ Lordship is his universal and unlimited authority and power. He is
the king of kings and the lord of lords. He has received all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). He is also the Head of the church and exercises his headship through his Word and Spirit. Much could be said about these aspects of Jesus‟ Lordship, but I will have to leave that to the other two speakers at this conference. At this point, I shall say no more than that it is extremely encouraging for the church to know that Jesus is the Lord. Our Savior is seated at the right hand of God. The One who paid the price for our sins, has been given all authority and power in the universe. No wonder, then, that the apostle Paul so often calls on the believers to set their hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1).
Now I have been asked to limit myself and concentrate on one specific aspect of the Lordship of Christ: his Lordship in the life of the believer.
There is good reason to deal with this aspect specifically. One of the amazing and awesome aspects of the gospel is that Jesus Christ, although He is so highly exalted, finds time to deal with every believer individually. He is not like worldly rulers who reside in their palaces and offices but find no time to have contact with ordinary citizens. Jesus is different, and we may summarize it in
this way: The One who is the Lord of the universe and the Head of the church, desires to be the Lord of our individual lives as well.
Every time when we think this through, it cannot fail to make a deep impression on us. Our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, who is seated on his heavenly throne, and who is the Ruler of the universe, is at the same time the Lord of our personal lives. The One who is so high and exalted, is at the same time so close to us. The one that rules the universe, desires to have an intimate bond with us.
That is such a great gift.
At the same it is such a great responsibility.
Let us look at the implications as they are drawn out in the Scriptures.
The basic truth which we need to take into account, is the fact that as individual believers we belong to Jesus Christ because He has bought us with his precious blood (1 Peter 1:18-19). As He has bought us, by implication He has become our owner. We do not belong to ourselves or to anybody else, but we belong to Him. We are his. “You are of Christ,” Paul tells the believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 3:23).
The Scriptures also reveal to us what our Owner has in mind for us. It is his goal that we should be sanctified, renewed, purified (various images are used to describe it). One passage that brings it out clearly, is Phil. 2:14. There the apostle Paul explains that Christ gave himself for us “to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Here the ownership-aspect and the goal of purification go together clearly.
This brings us to the next aspect which we need to consider: The Lordship of Christ also implies that we are called to a new obedience. This obedience is not an outward obedience (as obeying a set of laws), but it is a heartfelt willingness to obey this loving Master, our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave up his life in order to save us and own us. So, it is an obedience which is characterized by love.
Already during his time on earth, the Lord Jesus Christ made it clear that there is a lord/servant relationship between Himself and every individual believer. People were asked to follow Him, e.g. the young ruler (Matt. 19). Those who believed in Him are called „servants‟ and „followers‟:
“Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.” (John 12:26) Followers of Jesus are expected to obey his commands: “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15) And: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father‟s commands and remain in his love.” (John 15:10)
This obedience, then, which is directed towards the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, comes to us as a calling. This is illustrated by the fact that the apostle Paul, when he exhorts believers to a lifestyle of commitment and obedience (so-called paraenetic passages), he often places his exhortations it in the context of the Lordship of Christ.
One such passage is Col. 3:18-4:1 where the apostle Paul gives rules for Christian households. His commands to be submissive, loving, obedient, etc. are qualified by the phrase “in the Lord”. Wives are to be submissive to their husbands, “as is fitting in the Lord.” Children are to be obedient to their parents “for this pleases the Lord.” Slaves are to obey their masters “with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.” Masters are to treat their slaves fairly, “because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.” In a summarizing statement, Paul reminds the
slaves (but this applies to the other categories as well) that “it is the Lord Christ you are serving” (3:24). These exhortations convey the idea that the whole life, thought and conduct of believers is submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ. The exhortation which precedes the household rules also refers to the lordship of Christ: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (3:17) The same had been
said earlier in the letter: “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, (etc.)” (2:6)
The next aspect which we need to consider is that Jesus indicated that his lordship over the lives of believers was a spiritual lordship which would function in the context of a close relationship between Himself and the individual believer. Now as sinful people we are unable to establish such a relationship in our own hearts. But the Lord puts it there. The prophet Jeremiah had said: “I will
put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). And the Lord explained this further when He promised to send the Holy Spirit who “lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). In that same context He illustrated the close union between Himself and the believers by using the metaphor of the vine and the branches: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Jesus Christ, who is Lord of the universe and Head of the church, is also Lord of the individual lives of believers. He has bought them with his blood, so that they belong to Him. His aim is to purify their lives, and He takes care of this purification-process by entering into a close spiritual relationship with every believer and by giving every believer the gift of the Holy Spirit. As Lord, He has earned the right to govern the lives of believers. As a consequence, they are called to obey Him willingly and lovingly. In other words, the new obedience is both given (by the Lord) and expected (from the believers).
Early church to Middle ages
It seems that the excitement which the early Christians experienced because they realized that their Savior Jesus Christ was the Lord of everything, including their own lives, soon lost it power and vigor. Already in the New Testament letters we see that the apostles had to urge the believers to persevere in the faith and to keep their eyes focused Christ seated in heaven. As the church became older, and especially when the position of the church in the society changed under emperor Constantine, much of the original perspective was lost. It is impossible to describe the developments, of course, but a few general observations may be helpful:
1. The Headship of Christ was gradually replaced by the headship of the bishop of Rome. A
host of other figures (deceased saints, Mary) entered the faith world of the believers. As a
result the Lord Jesus faded into the background.
2. The Lordship of Christ over the world, which had been such an encouraging aspect of the
faith for the early Christians, gradually lost its meaning as the church came to be well-
respected in the world. At the same time, the eschatological dimension of faith – the
looking forward to the return of Christ – lost its importance as the church became more
focused on the good things of this world.
3. Doctrinal developments also played a role. During the worship services the church
increasingly drew attention to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. During every Mass the
elements of bread and wine were consecrated and Christ was offered to the Father as
expiation for the sins. At the same time, less and less attention was given to the present
position of living Christ, seated in heaven.
4. In the day to day faith life all kinds of church rituals and regulations were added to the
expected Christian life. These regulations eventually became sets of laws. As a result
church members did not feel responsible towards the Lord anymore, but the focus was on
the rules and regulations of the church (and how to enjoy your life while still being a
member of the church). Instead of being followers of Christ, people became negotiators
with the priest.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages the Lord Jesus had become a vague and remote figure to many church members. The only thing that most of them knew, was that the priest offered him up to God during the Eucharist.
Reformation ndrdCalvin has dealt with the theme of the Lordship of Christ in the life of the believer in the 2 and 3 ndbook of his Institutes. The 2 book deals with “the knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ.” rdThe 3 book deals with “the way in which we receive the grace of Christ.” ndIn the 2 book of the Institutes Calvin discusses the Lordship of Christ within the context of the threefold office of Christ (Christ being prophet, king and priest), more specifically, under the heading of the kingship of Christ.
In Calvin‟s view the Lordship/kingship of Christ entails that He exercises authority over the world and, in a special way, over the church.
As far as the church is concerned, He acts both as the church‟s protector and as its master. Christ protects the church against its enemies. The faithful may have confidence in the face of their enemies, knowing that Christ will gather and protect his church until the number of the saved is full.
Christ also governs