“…and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
It seems that whenever skeptics want to really make a Christian doubt the historical reliability of their faith, many times they will throw out what they think is a trump card. They will say something like, “Well, you know, Christians didn’t even believe that Jesus was God until about 300 years later when they Church Councils decided to promote him as a God. Yeah, sorry to burst your bubble, but the doctrine of the divinity of Christ was created later. You can’t find that stuff in the Bible.” (I’ve also heard this said about the Trinity, but we won’t touch that in this post.)
Of course, whenever I read or hear these arguments, I always beg to differ. But on what grounds? If I were to meet someone face to face who made this argument, what parts of Scripture could I point to that show that as early as Peter and Paul, the Christians who wrote the New Testament believed that Jesus was the Son of God?
While there are several verses I could turn to (John 1:1 or Colossians 1:15 for starters), it turns out that our best evidence in Scripture might not be a certain verse or set of verses, but one word that occurs over and over throughout the NT. We have read it so often that its full meaning probably never clicks with us. It is a title given to Jesus and used by just about every NT writer. It is the name “Lord”, Kurios in the Greek, and it turns out that this word would have carried many more connotations in the 1st century than our modern ears can catch.
To fully understand why this word is so important, we need to go back and look at the Old Testament. When Moses met God in the burning bush on Mt. Sinai, he asked God for a name in case the Israelites asked him who sent him. God responded with his name, Yahweh, and throughout the OT this name is used over and over to refer to the personal name of God.
However, today when we read the OT in English, we never see the word Yahweh in any of the verses. Why is that? Well, the Israelites considered the personal name of God to be very, very holy, so holy that they didn’t want to risk abusing it or committing blasphemy by saying it at the wrong time. To protect themselves, they began substituting a new word for it in its place. Whenever they would come across Yahweh as they were reading their scriptures, they would say “Adonai” instead. Adonai is the Hebrew word for ‘lord’ or ‘master.’
And so, every occurrence of “Yahweh” in our English versions of the Bible is translated as “the LORD.” Remember the story of Elijah’s showdown with the 500 prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel? When God answers Elijah with fire, the people fall on the ground and begin shouting (in Hebrew), “Yahweh, he is God! Yahweh, he is God!” But of course our English translations read, “The LORD, he is God! The LORD, he is God!”
The tradition caught on, and soon none of the Jewish people were saying the personal name of God anymore. It was just safer not to, they figured. The Masoretes (scribes who copied the OT and added the vowel points we use today) thought they would help out, and so they did not record the vowels on the divine name. It makes it pretty hard to say a word when the vowels are gone. Eventually, after many centuries, everyone forgot how to pronounce the name because the vowels were gone. All that was left were four consonants, Y-HW-H, and when we say “Yahweh” today, it is really just our best guess at what the name of God probably sounded like.
Anyways, after 300 BC and the conquests of Alexander the Great, the world began to be Hellenized, which means dominated by Greek culture and Greek language. The Egyptian city of Alexandria was flourishing with Greek culture. An enormous library had been established there, and their collection of writings was growing. The city also had an immense Jewish population (perhaps up to 20% of the population by 100 AD), and the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy II decided he should produce a Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures. The famous result was known as the Septuagint (Greek for seventy), so-called because 70 Jewish scholars legendarily contributed to the translation.
When they made their translation, the Jewish scholars continued the tradition of substituting the title “Lord” for the divine name. They picked up the Greek word for Lord, Kurios, and soon anyone who read the Septuagint was referring to YHWH, the God of the Jewish nation, as Kurios. The translation was complete by 132 BC and was widely used, especially since at this point the Jewish people had spread throughout the Mediterranean world. Even if they didn’t know Hebrew, they probably knew Greek and could read their scripture in Greek.
Next, Jesus came. We know what happens there. And after he had returned to whence he had come, his disciples started preaching about him and writing about him and talking about him in a certain way that let everyone know he was special. In the Gospel’s they record that he was called both Son of God and Son of Man. But perhaps more than any other words besides “Jesus” and “Christ,” the apostles used the word “Kurios” as the title of Jesus.
Now this is a curious thing for a bunch of Jewish men to call Jesus if they didn’t think he was God. Peter, Paul, James, John, and the whole bunch were raised as Torah believing Jews. They knew and believed there was only one God, and when they read their Scripture, they called him “Adonai” or “Kurios.”
Only one other person in the Roman world was commonly referred to as “Kurios” with a capital K, and that was the Emperor himself. The Jews were actually the only people group in the empire who were excused from worshipping the Emperor as Lord, and they got away with this by offering sacrifices to Yahweh in promotion of the Emperor. It is completely incomprehensible that these early Jewish Christians would call anyone Kurios unless they believed that they were talking about the same God who was the God of Abraham, Moses, David, and Elijah. They wouldn’t even give the name to the Emperor! Why then would they give it to a carpenter from Galilee?
This is why Paul’s poem about Jesus in Philippians 2 culminates with every person on earth recognizing Jesus as Lord. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should 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.” A tongue that confesses Jesus Christ as Kurios is confessing him as God.
Jesus isn’t the name above every other name, nor is Christ. There were lots of Jesus’s running around in the world then as there still are today. Lord, Kurios, Adonai—this is the name above every other name given to Jesus, and by it we acknowledge that he is Lord of all creation and Lord of our lives. When we read it over and over and over in the NT, we see that the Apostles recognized this as well.
It’s true that the Church councils of the 3rd-5th centuries really nailed down the theology that established Christ as a fully divine, co-eternal member of the Trinity in Christian doctrine. They had to do this because multiple heresies were popping up that were diminishing the fact that Christ was divine. And they were able to do so because this cornerstone of our faith is founded upon a belief that goes all the way back to the people who watched Jesus live, die, and rise again. They were convinced by what they saw, and they made their belief clear in the language they used.
There is one Lord. It was not Caesar in Rome (and another interesting study is looking at the risk early Christians took when they referred to Jesus rather than Caesar as Kurios.) In the doctrine of the Trinity, we are able to say with the Israelites on Mt. Carmel, “The Lord, he is God!”
It’s probably not convincing to skeptics because it’s just one word, but there is a whole lot in that one word. However, my faith doesn’t rest on that one word; it rests on the powerful savior that one word describes. Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God, and I belong to him.
“And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots go down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.” –Colossians 2:6-7
(The ideas in this post originated with Dr. Joe Dongell in my Intermediate Greek class. He set me on the idea; I just filled in the details.)