Monday, August 10, 2009
In my last post, I explained the amazing, stunning biblical message that Jesus the Messiah is none other than the enfleshment of YHWH, the LORD, the covenant God of Israel. But, as is the case with all of Scripture, that message had provocative implications for its first hearers and continues to have equally provocative implications for us today.
In the first century, when the Christian apostles were spreading the gospel message that Jesus is Lord (Kurios in Greek), it was much more than just a nice religious message about how people could be saved. It was a subversion of the Roman Empire. Let me briefly explain.
Starting with Caesar Augustus (63 BC – AD 14), the rulers of the Roman Empire were treated as gods during their lifetimes. The cult of Caesar was both a religious and political movement, and loyal subjects ordinarily referred to Caesar as Lord (Kurios) and Savior (Soter). As N.T. Wright, a noted New Testament scholar, has written:
The accession of the emperor, and also his birthday, could therefore be hailed as euaggelion, good news…The emperor was the kurios, the lord of the world, the one who claimed the allegiance and loyalty of subjects throughout his wide empire. When he came in person to pay a state visit to a colony or province, the word for his royal presence was parousia. (Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans)
It was no accident, then, that Paul swiped the words used to describe Caesar and applied them to the new king, Jesus! In his opening words to the Roman Christians (who lived in the very shadow of the Empire), Paul confesses that he is not ashamed to proclaim the good news (or gospel; euaggelion) that Jesus was Lord (Kurios) and Savior (Soter) and that his royal return (parousia) would be the consummation of the everlasting kingdom of God (see Romans 1:1, 7, 17).
N.T. Wright writes again that Paul
brings the gospel, the euaggelion, of the son of God, the Davidic Messiah, whose messiahship and divine sonship are validated by his resurrection, and who, as the Psalms insist, is the Lord, the kurios, of the whole world. Paul’s task is to bring the world, all the nations, into loyal allegiance — hypakoē pisteos, the obedience of faith — to this universal Lord. (Paul and Caesar: A New Reading of Romans)
If that isn’t a challenge to the Imperial cult, I don’t know what is! Caesar is not Lord; Jesus is. Caesar is not Savior; Jesus is. Caesar’s birth and ascension is not the good news; Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection are!
Unfortunately, some revisionist scholars today (like the over-exposed Jesus Seminar scholars), who have rightly discovered this political-religious dimension to Scripture, have concluded that Paul’s writings functioned only as political rhetoric. They insist that Jesus and his early followers were only interested in challenging Imperial authority and empowering the powerless, and that Jesus’ divinity (his status as Lord, Savior, and God) were later innovations by later generations of followers.*
And unfortunately (and yet conveniently), many of those same scholars have used their revised reading of Scripture to advocate their own particular kind of politics these days. They were especially active during the presidency of George W. Bush, condemning the excesses of presidential power and believing they were justly continuing Jesus’ peaceful, non-violent challenge to Imperial authority (read: Bush and Cheney).
They are partially right about Scripture indicting worldly power and exposing it as depraved, but the revisionist scholars miss the expansive, holistic, right-and-left challenge that the gospel of Jesus presents to all worldly powers. Caesar is not just the president (or just, conveniently the political party we don’t like), it is every worldly power today that opposes God’s purposes. Jesus’ universal lordship challenges the claims of all our worldly allegiances–political, religious, economic, denominational, philosophical, and ideological, regardless of our political persuasion.
And this is where Scripture’s shocking claim that Jesus is Lord, God, and Savior gets uncomfortable, perhaps especially in the inflammatory political environment of contemporary America. Government, education, the media, social clubs, and businesses are not our Lord; Jesus is. The president, our Congressional representatives, and all other elected officials are not our Saviors; Jesus is. The good news is not that one party is dominant in Washington (or in Lincoln or Richmond or Trenton) or that a particular piece of legislation promises to heal all our ills; the good news is that through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, God has inaugurated the promised age to come, revealed his covenant faithfulness, and invited people of all conditions to join his universal family through faith in the Messiah.
The good news is that Jesus is Lord!
* Of course, this claim is pure conjecture on their part. There is no evidence, other than those scholars’ insistence, that Jesus was merely a political leader who, coincidentally, happens to mirror their own political convictions exactly.