Monday, May 30, 2011

What did they mean by "Jesus Is Lord"?

The first Christian statement of faith was simply "Jesus is Lord." One modern hearer gathered from this the meaning that "Jesus will care for me," much in the vein of the 23rd Psalm's "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." Perhaps. But what did the ancients, the first century Christians, mean?

Let's examine the three words.

Jesus. Not Christ (really a title, meaning Messiah). Not just anyone who occupies a particular office. Not some spiritual or celestial being. A particular person that some of them said they had met and talked to just like you and me in the flesh-and-blood here and now. Yeshua bar Josif, some postulate as his full historical name.

Is. Not was when he was alive. Not was long ago when the dinosaurs roamed. Not was at all. Is. Exists today.

"But how can that be? We saw him executed by the Romans!" The Roman officials themselves, asked who this "Chrestus" was, reported to superiors that he was an executed Jewish woodworker whose followers said he had risen from the dead. That was what spread like wildfire in the Roman Empire. This one, it was said, cheated the Emperor's executioner!!!

The Christians believed it.

Finally, Lord. In our Eurocentric conception, to us lords are medieval landowners, some of whom built castles. In some European countries, their heirs hold legal title to the lion's share of the land. But to the ancients an ordinary lord was a master or guardian, the head of household, the landowner, the king, the emperor -- all of whom had power of life and death over their subjects (by divine right, Paul wrote). "Lord" was also a substitute for "God" and in that world the Caesar was a god.

When Christians held "Jesus is Lord," the Romans knew they had to kill them.

All Christian statements of belief have always arisen by the "via negativa" or denial of an assertion of its time. Hail, Caesar! No, Jesus is Lord.
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